Week 18: Molokai

Molokai

I met Tim and Torrey on my first day hiking the O Circuit in Torres del Paine. Months earlier, we’d all signed up for basically the same campsites along the 9 day trek and they soon became my trail family. No matter which of us got to camp first, we would always set up our tent right next door. I never really felt like I was solo hiking, because every night at camp, I knew I’d have company. After they brought me some treats on trail, I started calling them my fairy godparents. They invited me to come visit them, and since I’d never been to Molokai, I decided that sounded like a great way to end my adventure.

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Glacier Grey and us in Torres del Paine, all of us on the beach in Molokai

Molokai is more Hawaiian than any of the Hawaiian Islands. There are not many tourists that visit and there is only one hotel and some condominium rentals for people who don’t live there. On the main road, there is a big sign that states, “Visit, spend, go home.” The people who live here don’t want their island to turn into Oahu or Maui. The three of us talked a lot about how it feels to be a part of a community in which you weren’t raised and why they might be more accepted than some of their neighbors. One thing is clear, both of them are extremely adept at understanding and participating in local cultural practices. Living and working within the community, instead of only coming and building a retirement home, also has a definite impact.

I was still getting over jet lag from New Zealand, so I did a lot of relaxing while I was in Molokai. I read some books and stared at the ocean. They did drag me out snorkeling one day.

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me hanging out on the west side of Molokai (thanks Torrey for the awesome photo), beach scene

We managed to see a bunch of fish, a sea cucumber, some nice corals and a cone snail. Notice the triggerfish in the upper right. That’s the state fish of Hawai’i, known in Hawaiian as the humuhumunukunukuapua’a which I saw for the first time back in Mauritius.

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top: marbled hawkfish, convict tang, reef triggerfish (Hawai’i state fish)
bottom: sea cucumber, coral, cone snail

They also took me out on a beautiful kayaking adventure with some of their friends. One of the places we stopped, there were three huge manta rays basically swimming in a circuit. They would swim the length of the beach and then flip upwards so that their underbellies showed and then swim back to where they started. I ran back to the kayak and grabbed the snorkeling gear, but the water was so murky I couldn’t see anything even though they were only a foot away in the water. Manta rays are such incredible, majestic creatures.

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Tim and neighbor in their kayak, Tim standup paddleboarding, glimpse of a manta ray in the water

I also took myself out on a couple of adventures. One was to Pālā’au State Park to see the view out over Kalaupapa. I could barely see anything through the fog, but this was the old settlement, established in 1866, where people with Hansen’s disease (leprosy) were forcibly taken away from their loved ones and forced to live. Since the 1940s, the disease has a cure and many people rejoined their estranged families. The site has been turned into a national park, and a few of the original residents still live there and will be allowed to live there until they die. There are restrictions around visiting and since a landslide occurred, the only way to visit is now by air or sea.

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fantastically foggy forest, view of Kalaupapa Colony, fertility rock

There’s also an old sugar mill which reminded me a lot of both the sugar factory in Mauritius and the money mint in Bolivia. This process of making sugar from cane is very similar in both places, but in Mauritius, the leftover sugarcane was burned and used to power the wheels that crush it. However, on Molokai it was mule, oxen, and horses walking in circles that caused the wheels to rotate. This is the same way the mint in Bolivia worked and how metal was flattened thin enough to make coins.

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place where livestock walked in circles, sugarcane extraction, passion-orange-guava icee (not nearly as good as I was expecting)

On my last day, I tried to do a cultural hike to see the Halawa Valley.  It was unfortunately canceled due to too much rain and the potential for flash flooding. Nonetheless, the scenery on the drive there was stunning. Molokai is so green.

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Halawa Valley panorama

Much love to my fairy godparents for being such incredibly awesome people and inviting me to come visit. 🙂

San Francisco

Coming home is always a fascinating experience. My backpack exploded in all directions and I was left seriously wondering how all of my stuff fit into my pack in the first place. I found souvenirs I bought months ago that I forgot I had stuck into random pockets. After all the time of the road wearing and hand washing the same clothes over and over, many were headed for the trash. I tried to repair the holes while I was traveling, but now that I’m home, it’s time to let them go.

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backpack explosion, 4.5 months of mail, piles of dirty clothes

It’s bittersweet to back. I love sleeping in my own bed and cooking, but I miss the constant discovery and seeing new things every day. I love seeing friends and getting hugs from people who care about me, but I miss meeting new people. I love doing laundry and having a whole wardrobe to choose from, but I miss the ease of not having options. Like every transition, this is a good reminder of the need for balance. Every new phase means changing some parts of my life that were previously cherished, but also gaining and discovering new aspects of my life that will soon be treasured as well.

Week 17: Great Barrier Reef, Port Douglas & The Outback

Great Barrier Reef

Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef has been on my wish list for a really, really long time, so I flew up to Port Douglas. Inside most corals, there are tiny plankton (a type of dinoflagellate) that live within the coral and give them their color. The years 2016 and 2017 were two really hot years which caused massive amounts of coral bleaching, roughly half of the reef. During a bleaching event, the plankton actually leave the coral when it gets too warm. These tiny plankton do photosynthesis which give sugars to the coral and without them, they slowly starve. If the water temperature cools down, the corals can accept these plankton back. Right now, the Great Barrier Reef seems to be in a stable holding pattern, although with global warming this is only a temporary situation. At the moment there’s some beautiful coral and fish still to seen, although there’s been a lot of devastation as well.

One of the most incredible sights in the Great Barrier Reef are the giant clams. I’d seen a couple big ones back in the Gulf of Tadjoura in Djibouti, but these are HUGE, over a meter across. I’ve previously only seen fossilized ones this big, so I thought they were extinct. But no, they are still living here on earth and they come in the most incredible variety of colors.

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giant clams – all of these are about 3 ft across

There were lots of fish. Here’s just a brief view of some that live in the reef.

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top: saddle butterflyfish, parrotfish, sixband angelfish
middle: dark-capped parrotfish, black & red anemonefish, longnose butterflyfish
bottom: double saddle butterflyfish, blackspotted pufferfish, trumpetfish

And, of course, the corals! I hadn’t seen blue corals in a long time, and this was a huge boulder of them, which made me really happy.

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lots of corals!

I am at the point in my snorkeling career where I get sidetracked by many organisms, especially weird invertebrates. In the top row of the photo below are three different types of tunicates. These belong to the phylum Chordata because they have a notochord, basically the beginnings of a spinal cord. Chordata is the same phylum humans belong to, which makes these our closest evolutionary relatives that don’t have a backbone. They are also known as sea squirts and, in the Bay Area, we have a species that look like little grapes that are commonly found on the side of piers.

Also, feather stars are cool. They are a type of sea star, but they can sort of swim. One of best videos of a feather star in action was captured in Thailand.

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top: green barrel sea squirt (Didemnum molle), solitary tunicate (Polycarpa aurata), bluebell tunicates (Clavelina puerto-secensis)
bottom: anemone and black & red anemonefish, feather star, feather star

Port Douglas

After my day of reef snorkeling, I  stopped in a wildlife sanctuary so that I could take a photo with a koala, and to feed some kangaroos.

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me & koala, bandicoot, Australian pelican, wallaby

The Outback

Next up was Uluru, the giant rock in the center of Australia that white folks called Ayer’s Rock. It is made of sandstone that was uplifted around 350 million years ago. This rock was used for spiritual practices by the Aṉangu people and for many years they asked outsiders not to climb their sacred rock, but tourists continued to do so. Finally, this October, the rock will officially be off limits. There are traditional stories that relate to certain marks and features of the rock. It’s a beautiful place, even though there are flies everywhere during the hot daylight hours.

At night, there was a special light installation by Bruce Munro that includes over 50,000 individual lights. It seemed a little pricey, but I really enjoyed wandering around in the ever changing colors. On the drive between Uluru and Alice Springs, our group stopped and did a lovely hike along the rim of Kings Canyon.

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top: Uluru, me & Uluru, Uluru
bottom: Field of Lights art installation, Kings Canyon rim walk, beehive rock formations

Near Uluru is another set of huge rocks called Kata Tjuṯa formed during the same geologic event as Uluru. This also has spiritual significance but gets far less visitors. I thought that some of the views were a bit nicer though and the hike was lovely.

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Kata Tjuṯa

 

Week 16: Melbourne

Melbourne

My first day was spent doing laundry, booking the rest of my accommodations and activities and basically being a super internet junkie. I needed a day off from traveling, especially since New Zealand had been a bit non-stop with all of the driving. Since I was staying in the Melbourne CBD (Central Business District) which is conveniently located right next to Chinatown, I did go out and eat some amazing food. 🙂

One of my first stops was the Melbourne Museum. There were tons of taxidermied animals, a special exhibit on the biota of our guts, and an introduction to indigenous culture.

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edible bush plants by the Yolŋu elder Mulkuṉ Wirrpanda

One of the most iconic buildings in Melbourne is the Victoria State Library. Built in 1854, it’s Australia’s oldest library and one of the first free libraries in the world. As you can see, it’s also very pretty.

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corrals in atrium, beautiful flowers in an old naturalist book, the dome

I took a special trip down to St. Kilda Pier in order to see the tiniest penguins in the world. These little blue penguins are only found in Australia and New Zealand. They are plentiful, but hang out only in certain areas. These penguins swim out before sunrise and stay until after sunset eating fish in the ocean. They come back every evening to sleep in the rocks and that’s when the tourists like me come by to see them.

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blue penguin, Melbourne skyline, more little blues

All the reviews of Melbourne online said it was important to see a game at the iconic Melbourne Cricket Ground. There was no cricket game happening while I was around, so I went to see an Australian football game instead. I read an introduction to the game online and the nice family next to me helped explain things. It’s very different from American football and rugby. Moving the ball downfield is mostly done through kicking and punching the ball forward to teammates. Scoring is accomplished by kicking the ball between posts, with the middle posts resulting in six points and the side posts adding only one point). Side note: these players do not skip leg days, their thighs, which are stuffed into tiny shorts, are bigger than most small trees.

One of the quirkiest parts of the sport is that because of the way the league was created, there are several teams from the Melbourne area and less teams located in other states. The match I saw was between the Melbourne Demons and the Hawthorn Hawks. Hawthorn is a suburb of Melbourne and is less than 4 miles away. Traditionally, people eat meat pies at these games, but I made do with a cream cheese and spinach roll. I always feel a bit anxious to go to big events like this by myself, but I’m so glad I went and experienced this very Australian tradition.

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Aussie football match, my lunch, final score

Since my last day in Melbourne was May 4th (aka Star Wars Day), I signed up on a whim to run a nighttime 5K Star Wars race. Run might be an exaggeration because I was quite sick and coughing, but it was fun to see so many folks dressed up in costumes in the middle of the night. I ran through foam, danced with Jawas in a silent disco, and marveled at the neon workups of famous characters.  The actor who played Chewbacca, Peter Mayhew, had just passed away so there was a lot of folks vying to take photos with all the Chewies on the run. I think there were more families and a greater diversity of body shapes than at any other race I’ve ever done. I also heard the most joyfully nerdy conversations while waiting in line to take photos at different stops. My favorite was a discussion of the average life expectancy for a wookiee. Answer: 400 years 🙂

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stormtroopers at the start, Star Wars characters and me

 

Week 15: South Island

Christchurch

This city has gone through so much the last few years. They are still rebuilding after suffering two giant earthquakes in 2010 and 2011. Many buildings are still surrounded in scaffolding and there are still buildings with huge holes in them on main streets. Then last month, a white supremacist killed over 50 people in a shooting spree at local mosques. The people of Christchurch are extremely resilient, but the signs of these tragic events are everywhere.

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mural on Canterbury Museum of a moa skeleton and living kiwi, old buildings downtown, flowers and tributes to those lost in the mosque shootings

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sign in front of Christchurch Botanical Gardens

Oamaru

My Kiwi friends (more about them soon) recommended I stop in this tiny town and see the steampunk museum. After hanging out inside this place, I’ve realized there are aspects of steampunk that I absolutely love and admire and then there are parts that I just will never understand. Mostly I deeply respect the maker hustle and passion so clearly evident in all of the pieces on display. Many of the creations would have taken hours of work and hundreds of dollars to complete.

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Steampunk HQ: moa metal sculpture, mad scientist laboratory, airship

The portal was probably my favorite installation: a room full of mirrors with strings of lights hanging from the ceiling. The mirrors reflect the lights in every direction, so it feels like the lights are repeating up and down and outwards into infinity.

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I didn’t see anything else in town, but these boulders are famous. They are concretions (new technical jargon for me), which means they were formed when minerals in the water created a calcite glue that held together the surrounding marine mud. They started small and then grew very slowly, taking about 5.5 million years to get to their current size. Eventually coastal erosion uncovered them and there’s quite a few of them on the beach today.

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boulders, me on boulders, more boulders

Dunedin

I came to Dunedin to see Beth and Josh, who I met back in November when I hiked the Inca Trail. They showed me around the city and the nearby Otago Peninsula and gave me all kinds of insight into Kiwi life. They first took me to the farmer’s market and around town before we headed out to New Zealand’s version of a castle. Completed in 1874, Larnarch Castle was built by a prominent banker named William Larnach. He had three marriages and there’s strong suspicion that his last wife having an affair with his son from his first marriage. Larnach’s personal finances were also in turmoil and he chose to die by suicide in 1898.

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Larnach Castle, us in the gardens, closeup of stained glass instead castle

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view of the peninsula and the city from the rooftop

My only request of Beth and Josh was to take me to see the yellow-eyed penguins. These are the rarest penguins in the world and one big reason for that is that they are extremely anti-social. We were fortunate to be able to see three of them hanging out in the wild as well as a bunch of them being cared for in the penguin hospital. Usually they care for about 100 sick or underweight penguins a year, but this year they’ve seen about 300. The area around their habitat has been overfished and climate change has meant they have to dive deeper to get to where their food is. Since they still have to hold their breath to dive, when they go down that deep it gives them less time and less chance to find food.

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yellow-eyed penguins

After bidding adieu to Beth and Josh the night before, I started my drive to Queenstown. As you can see, it was probably the most scenic drive I took in New Zealand. I don’t think I’ve seen trees change colors since I moved back to California. Growing up my life was dictated by the four seasons and fall used to be my favorite time of year. I stopped quite a few times on the road just to soak it all in.

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views from the Dunedin to Queenstown drive

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fall colors in Arrowtown

Queenstown

I wish I could tell you more about this beautiful city, but the only touristy thing I did was take the gondola up to the top of a nearby hill. I had big plans for adventures, but it just rained like crazy the whole day I was there. Sometimes travel just doesn’t coincide with the weather. I’ve learned that in cases like this it is best to just roll with the punches. It was cold and wet, so I got in line with a bunch of other people who had the same idea and we all watched a midday showing of the Avengers. 🙂

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view from the top of the gondola over Queenstown

 

Week 14: Dubai & North Island (NZ)

Dubai

Dubai was a last minute addition due to an airline ticket that gave me a free stopover to explore the city for a little over 24 hours. This was my second time visiting the Gulf, I was in Doha way back in January. I stayed in the neighborhood called Deira, which is across the Dubai Creek from the rest of Dubai. It is close to the airport and, more importantly, way cheaper than anything downtown.

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view of Dubai from Deira

I wandered creekside late at night when I arrived and even though it was past 11pm, there were tons of people (mostly men, admittedly) walking around as well. It was the only cool part of the day. Dubai is hot, like 100°F+ hot. When I awoke, I took a water taxi that cost one dirham to the other side of the creek. These boats are called abras and fit roughly 20 people on them. The old town is supposed to give visitors a taste of what Dubai was like in the past, but it’s got a Disneyland feel to it, more shops and art galleries than authenticity.

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Dubai creek, abra – water taxi, light installation outside art gallery

I did have the most expensive breakfast I’ve eaten on this whole trip. I knew it was going to be way more than I could eat, but I ordered an Emirati breakfast anyways: balaleet (vermicelli with cardamom, cinnamon, and saffron topped with an omelette), fava beans, white beans, date molasses, melted cheese, cheddar cheese, watermelon jam, and a couple different types of bread. Later on at the mall, I got my first taste of camel milk in the form of a saffron milkshake.

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spiced tea, Emirati breakfast, saffron camel milkshake

The biggest thing to know about Dubai is that everything is over-the-top. The most obvious example of this is the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world at 2,717 ft (829 m). I’ve never seen anything anywhere close to this tall. (Trivia fact: Saudi Arabia has started building an even taller building that is supposed to top out at 1000 m, but construction is currently on hold). This is what oil money can do.

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Burj Khalifa – day, evening, night

Everything in Dubai seems to have a normal experience and a VIP experience. It’s class segregation at its finest. Like Qatar, the UAE ships in immigrants from the rest of the world to do all the jobs the Emiratis themselves don’t want to do. In the course of a few hours, I talked to workers from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Kenya, India, and the Philippines. These folks have retail and hotel jobs with long-term work visas (with no chance of ever gaining citizenship) which allow them to make more money than they would at home. This is the nice immigrant story that the UAE would like to present to the world, but immigrants in other industries have their passports taken away and live in terrible conditions, stuck in a foreign country with few options. This modern day slavery has been well-documented. Its oppression of basic rights is what has allowed such technical achievements to be built.

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baby skyscrapers from the normal viewing decks on floors 124 & 125 of the Burj Khalifa

Continuing on the theme of doing the most, the Dubai Mall has an entire dinosaur skeleton in one of its atriums

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Diplodocus longus skeleton in the middle of Dubai Mall

and a floor-to-ceiling aquarium with a walk-through tunnel

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cuttlefish, jellyfish, glass fish

and an impressive fountain show.

Dubai has sold its soul to capitalism and the result is a garish, pretentious elitism that I struggled to enjoy. It’s a booming place of industry, financed almost entirely by oil revenues and the future cost of our planet’s health. The country is superficially fascinating, but deeply disturbing under the shiny facade.

 

North Island

Dubai was just a stopover on my way from South Africa to New Zealand. After crossing eight time zones, I arrived in Auckland at 4:30am, exhausted and confused. I drove around aimlessly for awhile and eventually the sun came up and I had a huge breakfast. I checked into my hotel and promptly slept most of the day away. Jet lag is a mess. As you can imagine, I saw very little of Auckland. It was Easter, so almost everything was closed on both Sunday and Monday, so maybe it wasn’t so bad that I slept so much. On Monday, I drove on to Rotorua to enjoy a nighttime treetop canopy walk in a redwoods grove and a dip in some hot springs.

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Easter morning sunrise from Takapuna Beach, Rotorua tree canopy walk, New Zealand cow grazing

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view on the drive to Rotorua from Auckland

Then it was time to experience the biggest reason I’d come to the North Island: a pilgrimage to the Shire. The original set from the first three Lord of the Rings movies was torn down, but they rebuilt them for the Hobbit movies and Peter Jackson is still taking a cut from all the people who come to visit them today ($50 per person). All of the buildings only go back a couple meters and the hobbit holes come in various sizes based on whether wizards or hobbits were being filmed next to them to give different size perspectives. The biggest surprise was that apparently almost 40% of people who come have never read the books or watched the movies. In our tour of about 30 people, I was one of five who admitted spending several hours of my life reading the whole series of Tolkien’s tales of Middle-Earth.

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top: Bilbo & Frodo’s house, me, Sam Gamgee’s house
zoom in on the rest to see what kind of work the hobbit who lived there did

After reading The Hobbit for school (Thanks Mr. Hawblitzel!), I at first struggled to get into LOTR. I finally read them one summer, going through all three of them in about a month. I think part of the reason was that the books are such male-centric novels. Yes, there are some powerful females with bit parts to play, but by and large it is an epic bro adventure. The Shire, nonetheless, was a place I imagined in my head when I was younger, so it is incredible to see it in person. It’s also nice to see how much the fantasy genre has opened up since then. I’ve read so much this year and this has included stories about deadly nuns,  a gunslinging desert woman with some hidden talents, and an African girl who is thrown into an epic adventure to free magic again in her world. Tolkien was one of the first, but fantasy is just getting better over time.

My last stop on the North Island was to see the glowworms in Waitomo, which were as spectacular as I hoped. I chose to go on a mini-caving and tubing adventure that was quite a bit of fun. I have never before floated down a freezing-cold river in a tube before (thank goodness for super thick wetsuits). There was one magical moment where the guides pulled all of us down a tunnel and all we had to do was sit back and look up at the blue specks on the ceiling. Bioluminescence is awesome. This is one of those things that just must be experienced in person, but here’s a brief glimpse at what it looks like.

 

Week 13: Cape Town, Garden Route & Joburg

LEFTOVERS

Because I write these blogs haphazardly I sometimes forget to mention things. One of the most exciting parts of Mauritius was using a washing machine for the first time since January. It was really, really, really exciting. My clothes have been mostly washed by hand, by me, in a sink the last few months, so it was nice to have a machine do the work for me.

The other excitement of Mauritius was driving on the opposite side of the road. The night I arrived, it was raining and dark and the passenger side mirror didn’t work. It was an hour long drive of breathing meditations and reassurances. Fortunately, once the sun came out the next day it was better and after five days, driving on the other side doesn’t feel too strange.

I’ve also entered the part of my travel which doesn’t require my brain to think in another language anymore. I learned French in high school and it’s the last language I think in when I’m trying to find words. (I go through Spanish and Arabic first.) After a month in Francophone countries, I can bumble through okay. The point of language is to communicate, so it doesn’t matter how perfect my grammar is if I can get my point across. Nonetheless, I could feel my brain stretching to fire neurons that haven’t been used in a long time, reactivating neural networks that have atrophied from underuse. It was a constant stress and I am enjoying the ease that has come from switching back to the well-used English neural superhighways.

I am also, officially, off malaria meds. They don’t bother me that much, but I appreciate not damaging my liver in the long run.

CAPE TOWN

I love Cape Town. I first went there when I was 21, just recently evacuated from Peace Corps Zimbabwe. I loved it then. I love it now. When I’m done with San Francisco, that is where I am moving. I owe the school district a couple of years, but I might end up there when I’m done with my time. 🙂

Cape Town is a nature lover’s city. There are mountains to climbs, beaches to swim, and food to enjoy. It’s a Mediterranean climate (similar to San Francisco), although it gets a big hotter. People are extraordinarily friendly and laidback. I just love it.

I had one really important piece of unfinished business from the last time I was here. I never actually climbed Table Mountain, the beautiful landmark that dominates the landscape. I tried to hike three hills in one day and by the time I got to the mountain it was windy and starting to rain and I was exhausted, so I turned around. I went up in the cable car the next day, but for all these years, I still wanted to hike up it. So I did. While hiking, one of the other folks on the trail managed to spot some Himalayan tahrs, basically mountain goats that Rhodes brought here years ago. The park service has been trying to get rid of them for years since they are not native, but apparently they are way too spry and they just jump out of their reach every time they try.

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top: view from Platteklip Gorge Trail, agama lizard, view from top
bottom: rock dassie, view from cable car up to the top, Himalayan tahr

The haze was covering the town that day, so I didn’t have the best views, but looking out at all the green and blue just brings serenity to the soul.

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View over the city: the big peak to the left is Lion’s Head and the small one is Signal Hill. These are the other two hills I climbed before I turned back the last time I was on Table Mountain.

I also toured two museums that spoke directly to the apartheid regime that was only overthrown in 1994 (25 years ago, when I was still in middle school). This was also the same year that the genocide was occurring in Rwanda. District Six is the name of an area that was full of lots of different groups of people. However, in 1966, the white government determined that it was to be a whites-only area and over 60,000 people were forcibly moved out, splintering a community forever. One way the museum has chosen to remember this neighborhood is through inviting former community members to return and write down their thoughts, and then permanently capturing their remembrances by sewing over their words and drawings.

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beloved recipes from the community, Europeans only bench, former community members’ thoughts

Touring the museum, it’s impossible to not see the similarities to the white supremacy in the United States in the 1960’s. That legacy continues to impact communities today, just as it does in South Africa. Besides the obvious segregation in the South, a huge part of my neighborhood where I live in San Francisco was forced to move out in the 1960’s as well. After many Japanese-Americans in the neighborhood were forced into internment camps during World War II, the Fillmore became a predominantly Black community. City officials used eminent domain to bulldoze a huge swath of buildings to build what is now Geary Boulevard and the Japantown Mall. The black community was divided and forced into different areas of the city, or out of the city completely. This kind of community breakage continues. Just a few years ago, the low-income housing in Potrero Hill was supposed to be demolished and renovated, but people who had lived in that community their whole lives were being assigned to live in housing as far away as San Jose and were not given return rights when the project was completed. The testimony in District Six is a reminder to be vigilant and protect communities, while continuing to work to provide additional support and work to reduce violence within neighborhoods.

Side note: the movie District 9 was thematically based on what happened in District Six (only with aliens).

Bo Kapp was a similar area, only this one was full of Cape Malays, which eventually became a term that basically means Muslim immigrants from many places. The area has become very popular with tourists because of its very colorful painted houses. Residents speak of feeling like they were being watched like they were in a zoo – providing local color for tourist photos and how dehumanizing it felt. This is actually something I wrestle with as a traveler and it’s one of the reason there are very few photos of humans in my accounts of my travels. Unless I know someone personally, I don’t feel comfortable sharing their image with a wider audience (even the tiny audience of this blog). Everyone has a different comfort level, but this is where mine rests.

Some other highlights included the Zeitz Contemporary Museum of African Art:

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The Nightmare by Zimbabwean artist Charles Bhebe, Ghanaian El Anatsui’s largest installation ever, local artist’s reimagining of a Grow Box

And the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens:

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top: Mandela’s Gold strelitzia, protea, sage fynbos
bottom: pelargonium, king protea, iris

GARDEN ROUTE

This was another leftover goal from my 2001 visit. In order to do this properly, one to two weeks would probably be enough time. I drove the whole route in three days, squeezing a few must-do things into the little time I had.

I had sworn that I was done with safaris after spending so much money in Uganda. However, while web surfing things to do I came across a special meerkat safari on offer at a fancy game lodge in Oudtshoorn. I signed up as soon as I could.

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top: meerkat colony, meerkat pups, meerkat scout
bottom: meerkat, playing meerkats, golden mongoose

It took forever for them to come out. They have one scout that stays outside and reports back to the group whether it is safe and sunny enough for them to come out. It would stay out for a bit and then disappear inside and then come back out again. Finally it stayed out and another meerkat joined it, and then another. Soon, the whole colony was out playing on top of their burrows. In addition to all the meerkats, there is also a golden mongoose that lives in one of the holes. It gains some protection and good from living with the meerkats, and in exchange it kills snakes that threaten to eat the meerkats.

Oudtshoorn is also known for its ostrich farms. Back in the day, people would actually ride ostriches, but most of the big farms has stopped this practice. The farm I went to took us on a tractor ride around the farm – they have Zimbabwean, South African, and Kenyan ostriches.

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ostriches are big, close-up ostrich, ostrich eggs are strong

Ostriches are really, really tall, taller than me by a good foot or more. They also lay incredibly durable eggs, as can be seen in the photo. One ostrich egg is like 24 chicken eggs, weighs about a pound and can hold someone who weighs over 200 lbs. Totally incredible.

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Ostriches. I just love this photo. 🙂

I also stopped to see the Cango Caves. Like many cave attractions, there has been a lot of concrete poured on the floor to make it more accessible to the public, but there are also still many beautiful stalagmites and stalactites.

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stalactites and columns

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panorama of one of the rooms

I was planning on doing some nice hiking the last day, but the weather had a different plan. It just rained and rained and rained all day long. I did manage to visit Birds of Eden, the largest free-flying bird aviary in the world.

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Knysna turaco (my favorite), crowned crane, rainbow lorikeet
golden pheasant, mandarin duck, Von Der Decken’s hornbill

JOHANNESBURG

I’d always wanted to visit here even after people have talked about the high rates of crime. To be honest, the city still feels really gritty, especially the downtown area where I stayed. There’s a hustle-bustle feeling during the day, but the streets empty out at night. The suburbs of Jozi are quite different. I visited a mall in Rosebank and it felt like a busy, busy mall in the United States.

The one major attraction I visited was Constitution Hill. This is the current residence of the Constitutional Court of South Africa. Perhaps more notoriously, it was formerly a prison that at one time held Mahatma Gandhi and then later Nelson Mandela. Gandhi was protesting against the passes that the apartheid government made everyone carry that prohibited people’s movements between different areas. Asians (both Chinese and Indians), blacks, and coloreds (in a South African context this means someone with black and white parents) all had different restrictions placed on them. Mandela was jailed there in 1962 after the CIA tipped off apartheid officials to his whereabouts. He was charged with inciting workers’ strikes and leaving the country without permission.

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two of the world’s most quotable men: Mahatma & Madiba

 

Week 12: Reúnion & Mauritius

REÚNION

My stop here was exceptionally brief because I’d booked a less-that-24-hours stopover on my way to Mauritius. Reúnion is an “overseas department of France” which means they use euros and all the citizens have French passports. It feels distinctly different from the other places in Africa I visited. It was pretty much an empty island when the French arrived and they brought over slaves from Madagascar and later indentured workers from India and China.

Because I only had a morning, I decided to visit a factory where vanilla was made. Madagascar actually makes more vanilla than any other country in the world, but most of their production was in the north, in the area that I didn’t visit.

Vanilla was a plant of the New World, primarily in Mexico. When it was imported to Reúnion, the plants wouldn’t produce the well-known aroma without pollination. Even though the climate was great for growing vanilla, there were no natural pollinators for the plants. The original pollinator in Mexico was the tiny melipona bee. A 12 year-old slave named Edmond Albius discovered a way to hand-pollinate vanilla quickly using a blade of grass to transfer pollen to the stigma of the plant. That method is still used today on vanilla plantations outside of Mexico. The work intensive nature of growing vanilla is one of the reasons that it is such an expensive commodity. Currently, the price per pound is over $250. Random fact: the vanilla grown on Reúnion is known as bourbon vanilla because Bourbon was the original name of the island.

There actually isn’t much done to the vanilla after it is picked. They boil the green pods for 3 minutes at 150°F. Afterwards they wrap them in big blankets in a chest to continue to cook them until they cool down. Once they are done cooling, they put the pods in racks to let them dry out completely. When all the moisture is gone, the vanilla is ready to sell. They sort them by length and different sizes go for correspondingly different prices.

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photo of Edmond Albius, green vanilla pods, vanilla pods after drying

My trip to the vanilla plantation took almost all day because I had to take a bus to and from the other side of the island. I had about an hour leftover to walk the town of St. Denis and enjoy a nice lunch and some palm trees.

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view from waterfront trail, graffiti, State Gardens in St. Denis

MAURITIUS

I knew relatively nothing about this country before I arrived. It was founded by the  Dutch, then taken over by the French, who eventually gave it to the English. Like Reúnion, there were no indigenous people living here, although the colonists did manage to completely kill off the dodo, the giant bird that was a bigger version of an ostrich.

One of Mauritius’ main exports was sugar and there were many factories that made both sugar and rum on the island. After the English took over and eventually abolished slavery in 1835, the factory owners were looking for new workers to exploit. They settled on an indentured servitude scheme in which Indian workers were recruited and imported to the island on multi-year contracts. Many could make more money in Mauritius than in their home country and technically had some levels of freedoms, but exploitation was frequent. (This is so eerily similar to employment in many Arab countries today.)

Huge numbers of Indians immigrated and about 70% of today’s population have Indian ancestors. Most people are at least trilingual (speaking Mauritian Creole, French, and English) and many speak an Indian language as well. All indentured servants passed through Aapravasi Ghat in Port Louis, basically the Ellis Island of Mauritius, in order to be medically cleared and have their paperwork processed before being taken to their assigned sugar plantation.

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Aapravasi Ghat stairs that all immigrants passed through, walls separating baths, Caudal Waterfront mall

PAMPLEMOUSSES

All of these workers were coming because of sugar. Some toiled in the fields, planting, weeding and cutting sugarcane. Others worked in the factories themselves. The process is highly industrialized now, but back in the day much of this work was done by hand and with some help from animals.

The first step to make sugar is to crush the sugarcanes to extract all the juice. The leftover fibers are called bagasse and are burned to supply power to the factory. The sugarcane juice is clarified using lime and which forms a precipitate with the impurities that sinks to the bottom of the container. Next, the juice is brought to a boil inside a vacuum and 80% of its volume is evaporated. That syrup is then seeded with sugar crystals with starts the crystallization process. Eventually everything is placed in a centrifuge and the crystals stay inside and molasses comes out through the holes.

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top: crushing sugar cane, leftover bagasse, clarifying with lime
bottom: evaporators, inside the vacuum boilers, blender for crystallization stage

Near to this old sugar factory is one of the most beautiful places in Mauritius, the Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam Botanical Garden, named after the first prime minister of Mauritius. It is famous for a huge pool filled with giant water lilies, but there are so many other gorgeous plants. The gardens are a wonderland of incredible textures and colors.

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top: close up lotus flower, ficus roots, talipot palm (with 4 m long leaves)
middle: frog, giant water lilies, lizard
bottom: flower, close up of palm tree trunk, lotus flower seed pod

LE MORNE BRABANT

I spent a whole morning climbing up this mountain at the southern tip of the island. At one time, the mountain was a refuge for runaway slaves. When the British outlawed slavery, police walked up the mountain to tell them they were free. Many of the former slaves thought the police were coming for them and jumped to their deaths instead of being enslaved again. Today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and a tough hike to get to the top. The first part is really easy, but the second half involves hands and feet and climbing up some rocks to get to the top.

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view to the east, scramble up to the top, view to the west

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view from Le Morne Brabant

TROU AUX BICHES

I stayed in a little town in the north (translated it means the doe’s watering hole) because the snorkeling was supposed to be so incredible. All I had to do was walk in from the beach. Unfortunately, I didn’t have any snorkeling gear. Fortunately, I did have goggles and my trusty waterproof camera. 🙂

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top: Humu picasso triggerfish, sea cucumber, Moorish Idol
bottom: blue fish and coral, Honeycomb grouper, humbug damselfish

BOIS CHERI TEA FACTORY

Mauritius is home to a pretty large tea plantation and factory. From my visit, I learned that green tea and black tea are made from the exact same tea leaves. The only difference is that black tea has been left to ferment by exposing it to the air. White tea is made from the baby tea leaves at the top of the plants. The production line for the tea is pretty straightforward. After picking the leaves, they are crushed in a giant roller. The tiny bits then come up a conveyor belt and, for black tea, the bits are oxidized. Then they make their way through an oven to be dried. They are then sent to another room where the fibers are removed and the tea is sorted into different sizes. (Tea for tea bags is a different size than loose leaf tea.) Different flavors are then added and the tea is packaged and sent off to be sold in stores. This place is famous for its vanilla tea, but I thought the coconut tea and the caramel tea were way better (especially with milk).

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top: tea plantation, cutting up tea, oxidizing tea
bottom: tea after going through the oven, fibers being removed, final products

I was a bit mesmerized watching the machine that fills and makes the tea bags.

ISLAND FOOD

I stayed in an apartment in Mauritius so I didn’t eat out as much as I have in other places. Nevertheless, here’s a few photos of food and drinks.

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grapefruit soda (from Reúnion), fresh citronella, mango mousse, Indian thali