Posts Tagged ‘Richters’

Back Home…

December 14th, 2007 at 5:46 pm (AST) by Jake Richter

We made it back to Bonaire last night, safe and sound, although Linda and Krystyana have managed to bring a cold back with them.

It’s been an interesting almost eight weeks, and I plan on attempting to add more stories and photos here in the coming weeks, as work permits.

As a teaser, some of the other highlights of our trip include a pod of dolphins, real flowing lava, learning Polynesian traditions culture first-hand, and checking out volcanoes of various sorts.

I head off on Sunday to Boston for a couple of intimate days with my orthodontist, getting some dental work taken care of. I am not looking forward to freezing my butt off.


Diving With Sharks in Fiji

December 6th, 2007 at 2:02 am (AST) by Jake Richter

Day 42 of our Pacific Journey – Diving With Sharks

Friday, November 30, 2007

Getting Our Days Straight

So I finally got around to counting days on the calendar and my previous entry below marked as Day 40, should have really been Day 38 (or technically Day 37 due to the fact we crossed the International Date Line, but I’m not going to deal with that issue). That makes this day I am chronicling about next – November 30th, our 42nd day of travel and excitement.

I need to mention I would have had this posted in a more timely fashion except for the fact that our somewhat pricey but decent Internet connection at the Outrigger On The Lagoon in Fiji went dead on the 30th at 11am, and as of when we left for the airport at 6pm on December 4th, had still not come back to life. So here we are almost a week late, again. Sigh.

Back to our story…

A Diving (for Sharks) We Go…

Linda and I awoke around 5:45am this morning, and at 6:20am, Luci, a nice Fijian woman, showed up to take charge of our young ones. Neither Bas nor Krystyana were inclined to join Linda and I on our great adventure today, and in retrospect, it’s probably a good thing too, as the challenges of our journey would have exceeded their physical limits.

Map of the Beqa Lagoon - Our dive site, Bistro, is the left-most flag above centerOur great adventure was going on a pair of shark feeding dives in the Beqa Lagoon.

Beqa is a small island atoll located due south of the Pacific Harbor area. The atoll forms a natural lagoon which is reportedly a great place for diving.

Another detour here – when people, especially non-divers, hear that someone is going shark diving, they get all sorts of images, typically ones derived from having read or seen Peter Benchley’s epic, Jaws. Those images involve menacing and calculating sharks looking to sneak up on hapless divers, ready to bite them in half, with blood and carnage everywhere. The reality is that dives where sharks are regular fed by trained feeders are quite safe, and for divers the biggest rush is how cool all the sharks are, and not “I hope I don’t get eaten”. And Peter Benchley himself realized this too, well after the hysteria and fear his works had induced. In the years before his death in 2006 he attempted to fix some of the damage Jaws did to the perception of sharks by working to protect them.

Back to our adventure. To get to where our dive was to occur, we had to drive more or less west for well over an hour to a place called Pacific Harbor, and hook up with Aqua-Trek, a dive shop which does a two-tank (two dives, one scuba tank per dive, hence two tank) dive trip south to the Beqa Lagoon three times a week – Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays.

Sign for Aqua-Trel Diving to Beqa IslandWe arrived at Aqua-Trek around 8am in our AVIS rental car, checked in, set up our gear on board the Aqua Sport dive boat, and watched (and smelled) days old fish parts and chum being loaded on board. Just before 9am, we and our seven other dive companions were off to the Bistro dive site. One couple was from Vancouver and traveling about the world for a while. Another was a younger couple from San Francisco on a six month world tour. There were two Japanese guys, vaguely reminiscent of Hiro and Ando from the series Heroes, and a young Australian guy who was in Suva on business and managed to work the dive into his schedule.

It was a very short boat ride, perhaps 15-20 minutes, and we found two other dive boats already there – apparently Friday was the day that the Aqua-Trek dive shop ran the shark dive for two resorts located in the Beqa Lagoon as well, so that put us at around 30 divers for the dive, plus a half dozen or so divemasters and handlers.

Entering The Watery Depths

After a briefing where it was explained that we’d be watching the first feeding at a depth of around 30 meters, we all made our way into the water. The current was ripping, and I lost track of Linda for a while as I struggled to get down to the target area – I finally saw her behind me, swimming for all she was worth trying to make headway into the current. We helped each other over a ridge and finally made it to the feeding area, breathing hard. Good thing they gave us generous fills on our tanks (for our fellow divers, tanks were filled to around 3400 psi).

We joined other divers along a rope that had been set up to mark off the viewing area, and watched as ever-increasing numbers of fish of many species mobbed the diver who was dispensing the yummy fish parts. Among the fish we saw were a variety of fusiliers, giant trevally, rainbow runners, butterfly fish, smaller jacks, groupers, and more. And then Linda started hitting me to get my attention – a tiger shark had appeared to our right and was regally swimming through the parting hordes of smaller fish to scope things out. The tiger shark was a female as evidenced by the lack of claspers, a clasper being a shark penis – and most male sharks have two of those, incidentally. She was also around 12 feet long. A big lady indeed! This was a major rush for us, as tiger sharks are rarely seen by people, especially in non-threatening situations. Their name stems from the white tiger-marking-like patterns on their backs.

Here the tiger shark is only a yard away from me - she was hugeIt should be noted that tiger sharks are the second most dangerous shark (to man) in the world, but mostly to surfers, not divers. And this tiger shark had been acclimated to divers and being fed (and even touched), so we were not in any real danger at any time. However, just in case, a number of the dive guides had aluminum prods (looked a bit like walking canes) which were used to keep sharks away from the paying divers. They must have been doing a good job because we don’t think any divers were lost on our dives.

At one point during the feeding a male nurse shark got in the way of the tiger shark and was almost bitten in half for his insolence.

The tiger shark stayed with us for the entire dive, getting as close as a couple of feet away – I was glad I had my camera system equipped with a wide angle lens – both to capture the full shark even at that distance, as well as a barrier between myself and the shark, just in case this was the one time the tiger shark decided the nearby blond diver might make a good snack.

This was our second tiger shark view on this Pacific journey of ours – but the first was behind glass, however, at the Maui Ocean Center a few weeks ago (more on that at some later point). Much better and cooler to see it in real life right in front of us. There’s also no question that the tiger shark was the queen of these here waters. Where she swam, most other fish rapidly made way for her (except for the stupid nurse shark, and he certainly did not get in the tiger shark’s way again).

As the food ran out, and we were getting close to having to do a decompression dive, we were ushered to head up to the boat. The tiger shark was still prowling about as well, making our handlers a bit jumpy. However, ascending was not quite that simple for me. As I tried to get up from my kneeling position, I found that one of my fins had gotten lodged in under a rock and I could not extract the fin – I was effectively stuck at 80 feet under water. Linda tried to help, but it required the assistance of one of the dive guides to finally dislodge it (and it ended up breaking the rock too). Mind you, I wasn’t too nervous, as I knew I could always take the fin off and either leave it there, or at least have better leverage to get it out without my foot in the fin, but it was nice having the additional assistance. We finally managed to ascend to do our safety stop and then got back on board the boat for a decent surface interval.

The Second Dive – Amusingly, Most Divers Unaware Of Sharks

Divers lined up to watch the action, with Linda overseeing things from rightThe weather had gotten a bit sunnier, so we tried to warm up before the next dive. For this one we were going to a shallower feeding ground at only around 15 meters deep. The current was much weaker, fortunately, but even so, this time we used the descent line to get down instead of free swimming. We found the line of divers too crowded to get situated comfortably, and I had to bonk a small moray eel on the nose a few times with my camera strobes to have him give up his perch near where I was trying to kneel. Linda ended up sitting on a rock behind me. However the feeding this time was rather boring – lots of smaller fish, and no sharks, so I left the line of divers with the intention of taking some pictures of other fish in the area.

And here she is - the silvertip shark, and most of the divers are obliviousAs I managed to free myself from the other divers and started looking around, I realized that there were a fair number of sharks cruising around behind all the divers, right near me. Linda and I signaled our amusement to each other about how all the divers were focused on watching small fish, and meanwhile the big ones with big teeth were mere meters behind their backs. We ended up seeing up close (within a few feet) a sicklefin lemon shark with her entourage of bright yellow juvenile golden trevally – acting as a type of pilot fish, as well as a silvertip shark. Further off in the distance we also saw whitetip, blacktip, and bull sharks. Quite the shark menagerie, and most of the divers had no clue until the very end as they ascended in a chaotic jumble and saw sharks all around.

As we surfaced from our second dive and got comfortable on the boat, we all had a chance to share our favorite shark tales.

Once we arrived back on shore, we got cleaned up, ordered a DVD of our dive (which featured about 15 minutes of footage from our dive and another 15 minutes of filler about the dive shop and the sharks and other fish we had seen), and then set out in search of lunch.

Lunch, Low Tourism, and Traditional Song & Dance

We found that at the Oasis Restaurant at Arts Village, also in Pacific Harbor. Art Village was supposed to be a recreated old-style Fijian village with additional shops offering local handicraft, but we found it rather quiet and deserted. Another victim of the bad PR created by last year’s coup. Occupancy at the hotels in the area was also way down, just as in the Coral Coast area where we were staying.

The food at the Oasis was excellent, and reasonably priced. I had a local fish soup with some hot sauce they made for me, and Linda had a Thai salad with mango and tamarind dressing. We followed that up with spicy ginger noodles, and a ginger pork dish. Everything had incredibly fresh and crisp, not overcooked, vegetables. It was more food than we could finish, so we skipped desert. And one of the highlights of the meal was our dining companion, a calico cat which belonged to one of the staff. The cat was very friendly and reminded us of our pet family members left back at home.

After the late lunch we checked out some of the shops at Arts Village, found nothing truly worthwhile, and then made our way back to the Outrigger, arriving sometime after 4pm. Luci had taken good care of the kids, and both were in good moods, as was Luci.

Linda wants to call this image -Men in Skirts- - actually we're both wearing Fijian sulu garments, something men here in Fiji noAfter some quiet time, and room service for Bas, we had dinner at the Ivi restaurant with Krystyana while Bas went to the kids’ club. It should be noted that both Bas and I wore a sulu for our evening activities. A sulu is a type of wrap worn by Fijian men. Very comfortable, and it even has pockets. We also wore matching Hawaiian shirts we had picked up at Hilo Hattie’s in Hawaii. Here on Fiji they call them Bula shirts, incidentally.

We hooked up with Bas during the performance of the Meke – a traditional native song and dance ritual. After the Meke we were invited up to dance. I joined in in the hopes of getting Bas to participate, but he weaseled out on me.

We had a fine time, and closed the evening with the nightcap left in our room – one of the benefits of the type of bure (hut) we’re staying in here at the Outrigger. We also get a glass of champagne each with canapés earlier in the evening each night – another nice benefit we have been enjoying regularly.

More photos from this day, including lots of shark shots can be found here.
Thus ends Day 42 of our Pacific Journey.


The Quest for the Home of Fiji Water

November 27th, 2007 at 7:18 am (AST) by Jake Richter

Day 40 (or so) of our Pacific Journey – The Quest for Fiji Water
November 26, 2007

Okay, we’ve skipped quite a few days, and it’s possible my day count is a bit off too – this whole thing with being on the other side of the International Date Line is really messing us up. If there is a mistake we’ll correct that if necessary during some sort of back fill process (which there needs to be since we have so many great photos from the last month of travel).

Close-up of the Fiji Water sign on the truckAs promised in the previous post, we did sally forth yesterday (here it’s already the Tuesday the 27th of November, in the evening) in search of the place where they bottle Fiji Water, as well as to explore other parts of Fiji’s big island of Vitu Levu. I should explain that many companies claim some sort of affiliation with a particular geographic region, but when you dig deeper you find that is merely a marketing play. For example, we found in Hawaii that the Maui Fresh brand apparently had nothing to do with Maui – it was all a mainland thing.

So, we wanted to see for ourselves whether Fiji Water was really from Fiji. The signs were encouraging – we had seen a big advertisement near the Nadi airport when we first arrived over a week ago promoting Fiji Water and proclaiming “Visit the Source”. And that’s what we intended to do.

When we checked in at our hotel on Saturday, we explored the area and found a small restaurant and taxi business on the property next door to the Outrigger resort we’re presently staying at, and while there, had mentioned our quest for Fiji Water. After clarifying that we didn’t want to buy any Fiji Water (it was in the cooler at the mini-mart located also located there), one of the people there suggested he knew where Fiji Water was bottled and suggested that instead of renting a car (yet another service these entrepreneurial folks offered), we could instead hire a car with a driver, and get a tour as well. Considering our destination was over three hours away by car (this is not a tiny island we’re on), and the price suggested, 220 Fijian Dollars (about US$143), was not unreasonable, we ultimately decided to take them up on the offer. So on Sunday we put down a deposit and yesterday, on Monday, our driver Babu picked us up at 7:30am and off we went.

Much as we’ve found on most other Pacific islands, there’s one main road that encircles the island, with the interior being quite mountainous and impenetrable. Vitu Levu was no different in that respect. Only sheer size differed, in that a full circumnavigation would take around 12 hours (because a long stretch of road is dirt, not paved – if it were paved, it would be around 8 hours around the island). And, of course, all traffic on the island appears to be on the road when it’s least convenient. Glad someone else was driving. However, the cars per capita number seems to be much lower here than on the Hawaiian islands, with most people relying on a network of buses to get around.

I’d like to add at this point that any statistics about Fiji I cite in this blog entry are based almost entirely on discussions with various Fijian citizens, and mostly there on speaking at great length with Babu, our driver. However, I’ve not seen or heard anything that would cast doubt on the things he told me either.

Fiji & Vitu Levu – An Overview

The population of Vitu Levu, which contains Suva, the capitol of Fiji, as well as the large towns or areas of Ba, Sigatoka (which is near our hotel), Lautoka, Tavua, and Nadi (where the international airport is located), is around 500,000 people. What is interesting is that according to the most recent census, the Indian (as in Asian Indian, Hindustani) population is at around 35%, while the native Fijian population is around 60%. That a marked decrease in the Indian population in the last decade or so, as there has been an exodus of those of Indian descent to places like New Zealand and Australia for a variety of reasons, including an inability to own land.

You may wonder, as did we, how there came to be such a large Indian population in the first place. Well, the answer is sweet – sugar sweet. The British Empire, in the 1800s, brought in what was effectively Indian slave labor to help harvest sugar cane in Fiji, because they were apparently unable to get native Fijians to do the job in the fashion they wished. Over the ensuing decades, the Indians continued to maintain their communities, and to a remarkable extent, their culture. You see women wearing saris everywhere, and the cuisine has Asian Indian influences, with curries and roti being widely eaten. Babu is a fifth generation Indian Fijian, incidentally.

It should be noted that Fiji split from Britain in 1976 to become a Republic, but is still part of the British Commonwealth (and the fact that Queen Elizabeth’s face adorns all the paper currency is a testament to that).

Our personal observations show that the Indian and Fijian communities here on Vitu Levu are rather distinct and separate for the most part, and inter-racial relationships, which in fact were shunned by both Indians and native Fijians not long ago, are only now starting to appear as a public thing among the younger generations (although still not generally accepted by older generations, as best we can tell).

Ethnic Fijians still have a somewhat tribal structure – we noticed this in the out-islands where we were all last week – with a village chieftain, whose word is law, and who controls the village’s or tribe’s land. A large percentage of Fijian land (we heard it might be as high as 90%) is still in control of Fijian villages, with the rest either free hold land (the title is owned free and clear by some other party) or crown leased land (belongs to the government and is leased for a 99+ year period to some party). Native Fijian village land can be leased, but typically the lease is only for 50 years, and at the end of the lease reverts back to the village unless some other arrangement is made, and that creates a disincentive for anyone to invest heavily in constructing nice homes or office buildings on village land (unless it’s the chief him or herself – there is in fact one woman chief on Vitu Levu, but apparently only one). This land disparity is what has been suggested as the cause for the exodus of Indian Fijians, as they have no villages and no chiefs, and therefore no ancestral lands to call their own in Fiji.

But, as usual, I digress. I will close this section with a bit more cultural information.

There are three languages in use in Fiji – native Fijian (spoken mostly by native Fijians), Hindi (spoken predominantly by Fijians of Indian descent), and English (taught in the all schools as the primary language of Fiji, but in our experience a fair number of people here have great difficulty communicating in English). According to Babu, the relatively new military-based government (there was a coup just under a year ago) has decreed that starting with the next school year (school ends this week, and summer vacation starts next week) in February, all three languages will be taught in school, including the reading and writing of these languages, but with English still the primary language of instruction.

The major religion on the island is Christian Methodist (a result of early missionary work in the 1800s) among ethnic Fijians, with Islam (Sunni) and Hindu strong in the Fijian Indian communities. Other Christian variants as well as other Asian religions (e.g. Sikh), are also represented.

Sugar and tourism are the biggest industries in Fiji at present, but the tourism industry took a nose dive after the coup last December 5th, and the sugar industry is threatened by the withdrawal in 2008 of European Union sugar subsidies.

Which is why a company like Fiji Water is potentially so important to Fiji’s future (nice segue back to the topic at hand, eh?).

Finding Fiji Water

The Richters absorbing all about Fiji as we drive alongAs we were about 2 hours into our drive, and my non-stop discussions with Babu (the rest of the Richters were in the back seat, so intent on our conversation they apparently had to close their eyes to concentrate enough to absorb it all), he gets a phone call telling him that we may or may not actually get into the Fiji Water plant, since they typically don’t accept visitors on Mondays. Wednesday and Thursday are visitor days, and then only with an appointment. Babu did however get a name of a woman at Fiji Water that we could try and use to beg for a tour. We were not wild about this development, but considering we were more than half-way there, we slogged on.

We spot a Fiji Water truck - we must be close..Another thing that we found odd was that while we saw the large bill board telling us to “Visit the Source”, there were in fact no signs or any other stationary indications that we were heading the right way. Babu told us that one of his past associates had brought a group up to the plant a couple of years ago, though, and had been told roughly where to find the plant (i.e. “If you get to the village of Drauniivi, you’ve gone too far – it’s in Yaqara”). One encouraging sign after we passed the port city of Lautoka was that we started intermittently seeing and passing container trucks with Fiji Water placards.

It's a good thing we ignored this sign when we went onto the Fiji Water plant's road_We did actually end up in Drauniivi, and after asking directions, turned back and found an unmarked road going inland, post with a no trespassing sign. We went ahead anyway, and found a huge white satellite dish (major bucks to buy and operate), and shortly thereafter an industrial building in the middle of nowhere, with stacks and stacks of 20 foot shipping containers in the yard. It appeared we had finally found the home of Fiji Water. As we drove up to find the right security gate, I joked to Babu that at the nearby residential section we saw they probably washed their cars with Fiji Water. Turned out I was right on that point, much to both our amusement.

I got out at the security gate, gave my name and mentioned the name of the contact we had been given and gushed on about how we Americans had traveled all the way to Fiji to see the home of the wonderful Fiji Water (and it is pretty good stuff). It was a bit tense, and I was told to get back into the car and wait for further directions.

We drink Fiji Water while we waitAbout 15 minutes later, during which time I made sure to visibly drink from a bottle of Fiji Water, a guard came out to guide us into the facility. There we went inside the main building and were greeted by the contact. After explaining we had come a great distance to see Fiji Water’s origin for ourselves, and would love a tour, she left and in her place returned an American woman, Molly Powers, the Culture and Community Affairs Coordinator of Fiji Water.

Molly was a former Peace Corps volunteer who had been in Fiji for a couple of years and only recently come on board with Fiji Water to use her experience to work with local communities with outreach efforts. We were lucky to have caught her in, and when we discovered she grew up only a couple towns over from where I went to high school, we ended up finding quite a bit to talk about.

Molly was nice enough to give us a bit of background of the Fiji Water company, and then give us a tour of the bottling area. The company was started in 1996 by Canadian billionaire David Gilmour and is now owned by a California company. In the 11 years it has been in business, it has one of the best brands that I have seen, to the extent that many of the fine hotels and restaurants I frequent feature Fiji water as their preferred still water, even offering special silver decanters designed to fit the more square shape of Fiji Water’s bottles. In a world of roundish water bottles, it’s good to be squarish. Fiji water sales have quadrupled in the last year, and they are apparently now selling 15 million bottles a year (this year, presumably).

Fiji Water’s artesian water comes from aquifers located under the biggest mountain range in Fiji, and is naturally replenished from rainfall and runoff. The large amounts of volcanic soil and rock above the aquifer act as filters to remove impurities from the water, while at the same time giving it a high silica level, which is attributed for giving Fiji Water a “softer feel” than other mineral waters.

The water from the aquifer is further filtered for biological materials, and then fills Fiji Water’s distinct plastic bottles. Those bottles (and caps) are actually manufactured on-site at the plant, as we saw. Every 15 minutes a filled bottle is randomly sampled and tested to ensure the quality of the product.

The bottling area at Fiji WaterWe saw this process from a hallway with big windows overlooking two huge rooms. The first room was the bottling room, where the bottles were made from raw plastic, which was then molded into test tubes, and those test tubes then heated and extruded into a mold to product the right sized Fiji Water bottle (Linda and Bas saw how this is done on the Discovery Channel and shared that nugget of knowledge with us). Once made, the bottles would then be filled with the water from the aquifer.

There were three production lines available for use, to each make, at any given time, one of four different sizes of Fiji Water bottle – 1.5 liter, 1 liter, 500 ml, and the new 330 ml bottle. Once the bottles were filled and capped in this clean-room sanitary environment, they moved over to the next room which I call the packaging room. Here labels were applied to the bottles (different labels for different distributors and countries), bottles were shrink wrapped into bundles, and bundles were boxed. Most of this was fully automated, with humans assisting and verifying the process (and correcting things when machines didn’t quite get things right).

All in all, a fascinating process.

More happy Fiji Water workersOn the eco side of things, Molly explained that Fiji Water workers have a higher income than just about any other class of worker in Fiji, and that worker benefits also include a case of water each week. As part of the outreach efforts, the company also donates water to local sporting groups (soccer and rugby are huge), local schools, and also disaster relief efforts. There is also a lot of interaction with the half dozen or so surrounding villages, from which the company draws many of its 150 or so local employees. The company also brings in local school children to show them that modern industrial operation with a Fiji-derived product is possible and viable and give them some hope and inspiration for the future.

And Molly is right about that, we think. The Fiji Water plant is a technological wonder in the middle of nowhere, and in a country which is still rather agrarian and somewhat primitive in many ways. One would never expect something like this plant to be where it is, and accomplish what it does so well. Additionally, with the excellent branding that has been done for Fiji Water, it also improves the name recognition and value of the Republic of Fiji itself – kind of an interesting turn, in that usually it’s the name of the country which establishes the base for a brand (e.g. American Airlines, American Express, Deutsche Bank, Swiss Army Knife, etc.)

Molly, our guide, joins us for a closing photo at the Fiji Water plantAnd Fiji Water is working to further improve their branding by working towards achieving a net zero carbon footprint by next year, as well as starting to actually offer public tours similar to the kind that Molly had so nicely agreed to give us.

After having (and with great gratitude) taken up over a half hour of Molly’s time, we were each given our own bottles of Fiji Water for the ride back, and she even graciously agreed to pose with us for a photo.

Our search for Fiji Water did not end up in vain after all.

The Trip Home – Sleeping Giants and The Temple of Sri Siva Subramaniya

Our randomly chosen lunch spot - Chands Restaurant in BaWe left around 12:30pm, and found ourselves lunch in the town of Ba, in the small second story Chands Restaurant. Probably the best meal at the best price (less than US$25) we have had in Fiji, although the average American might have been scared off by the look of the place.

Orchids at the Garden of the Sleeping Giant-3After lunch we stopped at the Gardens of the Sleeping Giant. This was an area that had been built by actor Raymond Burr back in 1977 to help him cultivate orchids for his own use. The “Sleeping Giant” is reportedly an image seen in the mountains towering above the gardens, but try as we might, we could not see that imagery. However, the orchids – both in terms of variety and beauty – were amazing. We took a long walk (just under an hour) through the gardens, and into the thick of the jungle. Simply beautiful.

The Sri Siva Subramaniya Hindu Temple in Nadi, Fiji-10As we made our way back through Nadi, I had Babu stop at the Sri Siva Subramaniya Hindu temple so I could take pictures of this magnificent set of shrines. The Hindu priest I spoke with inside told me his temple was the largest Hindu temple in all of the South Pacific, and I could believe it. You could also just feel the love and dedication that went into its making, with its detailed paintings and sculpture adorning most every surface.

After a while there, having made a small monetary contribution to the Temple in admiration of the work that went into its making, we finally headed back to our hotel for dinner and rest.

I close by saying that Babu was great. If you need a private tour guide and driver, I cannot recommend anyone better here on Vitu Levu. He works for Johnny’s Taxi & Tours – phone (+679) 652-0684, right next to the Outrigger On The Lagoon Fiji, in Sigatoka.

Thus ends Day 40 (or so) of our Grand Pacific Voyage.

Photos from this day can be found here.


We’re Still Alive and Well – In Fiji

November 25th, 2007 at 6:38 am (AST) by Jake Richter

Bula! (that means “Hello”, among other things, here on Fiji)

Well, after traveling thousands of miles, and getting to Fiji just over a week ago, we would like to report that we are in fact live and well, and finally at a resort with decent Internet access.

Not that that necessarily means that we’ll be posting all of our last 30+ days of adventures all at once, but at least there’s a greater likelihood of more frequent posts.

However, we wanted to share with you that our adventure tomorrow (Fiji time) is to find the source of the world-famous, premium bottled water known as “Fiji Water“. For years, many of the nicer hotels and restaurants we have frequented in the U.S. and elsewhere have offered Fiji Water as the premium bottled water, and we figured while we are actually on the big island – Vitu Levu – of Fiji, we might as well go and see where Fiji Water actually comes from.

We’ve hired a driver (his name is Babu) and his car, for the three hour drive north along the western coast of Vitu Levu, with frequent stops for photo opportunities along the way, including a place known as the Garden of the Sleeping Giant, rumored to have been discovered/started by Raymond Burr (of TV’s Ironside fame).

We hope to report on our success in the coming few days.

In the meantime we leave you with the fact that Fiji is hot, humid, and quite friendly. We had a nice relaxed time last week on Castaway Island, and got some nice diving in too. All the pictures from last week are sorted and cleaned up, but still need to be tagged.

Oh, and we all got henna tattoos yesterday. Although the Yin-Yang I got looks more like a deformed eyeball. More on that later…


Bora Bora

November 6th, 2007 at 6:57 am (AST) by Jake Richter

Day 7 of our Pacific Journey – Bora Bora
October 26, 2007

Our second full day aboard the Pacific Princess commenced with anchoring at Bora Bora, a larger atoll and island located some hundreds of miles northwest of Moorea – we sailed (if moving under propeller power can aptly be called sailing) about 15 hours to get here.

One of the geological differences between the atoll of Bora Bora and that of Moorea was that Bora Bora had many things in the atoll lagoon referred to as a “Motu”, or motus in plural. A motu is a small piece of land between the barrier reef of the atoll and the main island at the center of the atoll. The motu land is typically a volcanic substrate with some exposed coralline rock, and because of the volcanic soil, can be covered with lush vegetation, as was the case with the motus around the island of Bora Bora.

The Hawaiki Outrigger Race

Outrigger on Bora BoraAfter breakfast and the now-usual tour group congregation, we were ferried over by tender to Vituape, the nearest port. Port traffic was hopping, as was island traffic in general, and we only learned later that this was because today was the final day of the Hawaiki Outrigger Race, in which many contenders in outrigger canoes (a long canoe with a pontoon on one side and about a half dozen rowers) had been rowing diligently for the last three days between several islands. It was kind of like the Tour de France, but with outriggers and teams instead of bicycles and individual riders and held in the water instead of the lands and mountains of France. Okay, so maybe not quite like the Tour de France, but the local populace was pretty excited about the whole thing – so much so that people cut out early from work and clogged the sole around-the-island road.

The Island Circle Tour

Our tour bus stops for the church photo opportunityAnyhow, we were guided to a set of three vehicles that at first glance looked like buses, but in fact were trucks onto which bus-like structure had been added on. This structure featured rows of office chairs bolted onto wood frames, and also had a woven reed roof. Very innovative, but not particularly comfortable. We ended up in bus 2, with Virge (“Vihr-zheh”) as our driver and tour guide Enua (“Enn-ooh-ah”). Enua was quite an interesting character – a blend of French arrogance, island charm, scolding parent, and I’m-Big-Mama-don’t-mess-with-me (and she was a big woman too – that helped support that attitude). I don’t believe I liked her much. And, while I felt she was talking down to us during a fair bit of the tour, there was never any one thing I could point to to support that feeling on my part. Linda’s take is that Enua exuded a not-so-subtle sense of having better things to do than shepherd a bunch of cruise cattle. I certainly enjoyed Sandy’s more down-to-earth tour guide style on Moorea. That’s for sure.

This was my first experience in a long time of being in a large bus (or bus-like-thing) with a large group of people, and I did not really enjoy it much at all. Enua kept having us stop in various places for 5 minute breaks – I’m not sure if that was for us as tourists (because the places we tended to stop did not seem particularly noteworthy for the most part) or for her so she could take a cigarette break. Something, like her lighting up as soon as we had all removed ourselves from the bus, leads me to believe it was the latter. The part I really did not care for was that with all of the older folks on board, it took longer to get off and back on the bus than we actually spent at a particular 5-minute break location.

Our first real non-break/photo stop was at a pareo “factory” – basically someone’s house with a big backyard where the pareos were made. A pareo, as I pointed out in my previous post on Moorea, is much like a sarong. While the pareos on Moorea were basically just tie-dye-like patterns on cloth, on Bora Bora they had come up with an interesting way of incorporating recognizable designs, such as shells, sea turtles, and the words “Bora Bora”.

Bas observes the application of the linoleum shapes on the freshly dyed pareoThis was accomplished by taking the freshly dyed (and still damp) pareos, laying them out on a flat surface, and then putting linoleum forms and shapes over them. These linoleum forms would be cut in the shapes of shells, sea turtles, and the words “Bora Bora”, for example. As the sun dried the exposed parts of the pareo and faded it a bit in the process, the parts under the linoleum would dry more slowly and not fade, thereby highlighting the pareo with the shape of the linoleum forms. A human analogue would be when people are sunbathing, the parts of their bodies that are exposed to the sun turn one color (brown, but more often pink and red), while the parts that are covered by bathing suits, bikini tops, or thongs, remain relatively pale. We call the intersection of such burned tanned areas and the untouched areas a tan line. What the Bora Bora pareo makers do, in effect, is give their pareos tan lines too.

The ladies at the pareo “factory” greeted us with fresh fruit – pineapple, grapefruit, coconut (not really a fruit – it’s a seed, I guess), and papaya, and then proceeded to demonstrate pareo-making and pareo-tying. They also had a nice special of “buy five, get one free”, so we did, and got a couple of small tridacna clam shells as a bonus. This made the kids happy, and Bas was so thrilled with the pareo that he picked out that he wore it as a cape for much of the rest of the day.

Along the way, we did learn a few things from Enua. First was that the major export of Bora Bora, and in fact, many of the surrounding islands, was something called “copra”. Copra is dried coconut meat (the white part of the coconut), and when it was a major trade item in the Pacific, starting back in the 1800s, it was used to make coconut oil. Copra continued to be actively made from harvested coconuts until the end of the 1900s, with the coconut husks being used to fuel Bora Bora’s power generation, but as the pay for work in the service industries, especially in tourism, improved, copra production became less attractive as a means of livelihood and has since faded away as a cash crop. And the power plant is now fueled by diesel instead.

A Marae featuring a carving of a turtle on Bora BoraWe also saw a Marae – a sacred place of power for those who believed in the so-called old Gods of the Polynesians. Enua told us that human sacrifices used to be made there. The marae we saw, indicated by a stone with a carving of a turtle on it, still stands because it is “tapu” (taboo) to build anything on the land where it resides.

Land crabs were another feature of our tour – we saw them lured out with green leaves and fighting over that leaf. There were holes all over the shoreline where these crabs live. The crabs will eat most anything they can get their claws on, which means that island residents have to take extra measures to prevent the crabs from destroying their crops. That includes putting metal bands on palm trees (which keeps the rats away from the coconuts too). The land crabs are edible, but only once they have been “cleaned” for two weeks with a diet of coconut, mango, and papaya.

Enua also made sure to tell us about every hotel we passed by. For some reason, hotels and resorts were perceived to be tourist landmarks, a thing we found both curious and annoying at the same time. Sandy back on Moorea did the same thing, but as they only have three big resorts, it didn’t grate upon us as much.

One of the sights we did enjoy, but from afar, were the multitude of motus surrounding Bora Bora. The turquoise waters around the motus were stunningly beautiful. But almost all of the motus were privately owned, and only accessible by boat. Interestingly, Bora Bora’s airport also sits on a motu.

A partial list of celebrities which are to have graced Bloody Mary's in Bora BoraAfter several more “breaks” – which were actually sorely needed because the road conditions were horrific as a result of lots of pot holes and no real suspension in the bus to speak of, we ended up at a tourist trap fine local bar and restaurant called “Bloody Mary’s”. We assumed it was a great place, because lots of world-renowned celebrities who likely knew nothing at all about Bora Bora had visited the establishment and had apparently agreed to have their names listed on a board of patrons. The $12 house special strawberry daiquiri was a real treat, and worth at least one-sixth that price.

We had to bypass one final stop, namely at a pretty beach, because it was intensely crowded with people awaiting the arrival of the outrigger canoes in the aforementioned Hawaiki Outrigger Race, returning instead to the small village of Vituape.

Fine Dining on Bora Bora

While our search for local cuisine was not quite as thwarted on Bora Bora as on Moorea, our choices were still rather limited, at least within walking distance of Vituape (and we really did not care to go back and eat over-priced burgers at Bloody Mary’s either). The Richters wait for lunch at Fare Poulet, a Snack in Vaitape on Bora BoraAfter some wandering about we settled on a local “snack”. Much as on Bonaire, a snack is a local eatery where food is typically ordered at a counter for take-away. Some snacks have a larger counter where one can also eat the purchased food on site, much as we did at a little place called Fare Poulet. Fare Poulet featured mostly modified oriental fare, using some local ingredients. Krystyana had a fish dish, I had pork in oyster sauce, and both Linda and Bas had chicken in tamarind sauce. All quite tasty and filling (and no ill results the next day either).

While we enjoyed our snack fare, we found the lack of nice sit-down restaurants a bit troubling. As best we can figure is that most of the resorts are either all-inclusives or make it very difficult for their guests to leave by being on private motus, and as such demand for fine dining is too low to support a breadth of fine dining establishments. Again, for us this was a stark contrast to Bonaire, which, while having an abundance of snacks, also has a great selection of sit-down eateries within easy walking distance of the piers where cruise ships would dock.

We wandered about the various tourist-oriented shops in Vituape for a bit, and also checked out the local grocery store where we encountered a geriatric stock boy dusting the shelves as he filled them, wearing nothing more than sandals, shorts, and a duster (he wasn’t actually wearing the latter, but did have it in hand).

Diving Dry

We were supposed to return to the dock for a 1:50pm pick-up to go on our afternoon excursion aboard a submarine, but it turns out that that time was a typo on our tickets, and in fact were supposed to show up at 2:50pm. We were a bit disgruntled, but ended up using our time to view the outrigger canoes which had finished the race and were being packed up to be taken back to their homes – locally and on other islands) and followed that up by some ice cream and a French puff pastry at a little café we had stumbled across.

At just before 3pm we found ourselves with Sebastian, the pilot of a small, fast boat heading out beyond the barrier reef encircling Bora Bora. We approached what at first appeared to be a yellow spot on the horizon, but soon grew to be the submarine we had reserved space on. Along with us was an older couple, for a grand total of six passengers – the maximum the submarine could hold.

We boarded the submarine with the assistance of its captain, Alan, a Frenchman filled with enthusiasm for his job (truly!), and embarked for our journey into the depth’s of Bora Bora’s waters. Awaiting us, on the other side of 9 centimeters of plexiglass, were a bevy of remoras. Remoras are the fish which are usually seen clinging to large marine creatures, like sharks, whales, and manta rays. They are also known as shark suckers.

After the submarine’s hatch closed, and our ballast tanks were loaded with sea water, we started to slowly descend in a rocking motion, first pitching forward for a while, then backwards, until we had descended to nearly 20 meters (66 feet) below the water’s surface. Alan waxed on with infectious glee about the various fish we were seeing outside the submarine, providing an on-going commentary about how the submarine operated, where to look for the most interesting fish, and what we might expect next.

A fisheye view of the submarine's interiorBas, who was initially rather filled with trepidation by the whole concept of going underwater in a submarine lost all his worries and started joining Alan in pointing out various fish species (he and Linda had been studying some fish guides we brought along with us after they snorkeled briefly in Tahiti at our hotel there).

One thing that attracted the fish to the submarine was a small exterior hatch that was well stocked with frozen, aged (stinky) fish. The opening to the hatch could be popped open temporarily, and Alan used this feature to create small feeding frenzies for our viewing pleasure.

Over the course of the 45 minute dive, we saw dozens of species of jacks, snappers, butterfly fish, angelfish, several coronet fish, a trumpet fish, black tipped reef sharks, lemon sharks, a school of young barracuda, triggerfish, and many more. And the mildly eerie cyan lighting permeating the interior of the sub as the colors of sunlight were filtered by the depth of the water in which we found ourselves only made the experience more interesting.

All in all, the enjoyment of our submarine ride far outshone our disappointment with the morning’s circle island tour, and Bas stated he would love to go down in a submarine anytime the opportunity arose again. Definitely a convert to the underwater life. Now we just need to remind him he can see all the same things and more when he goes scuba diving with us.

We returned to the pier at 4pm to catch the penultimate tender back to the Pacific Princess. Once on board I headed off for another spa treatment (this time with Karen and a men’s facial). And at 6pm we took our first “formal night” in stride with the best clothes we had brought with us, and dined in Sterling Steakhouse Grill, one of the two specialty restaurants on board. The meal was good, as was the service.

After dinner, Krystyana and I went to see the evening show put on by the ship’s entertainment staff. The show was entitled “Shake, Rattle, and Roll”, featuring rock music of the 60s – clearly targeted at the median age demographic of our fellow passengers. But we knew most of the music as well and enjoyed ourselves. I was pleased to find virtually no lip-syncing going on (a contrast to my first and only prior big-ship cruise on Carnival about 20 years ago) – the performers actually did their own singing (and dancing, of course). That show got Krystyana hooked on attending the evening performances as well, much to our amusement.


As might be apparent from the above, we were less than charmed by Bora Bora. It seemed overly busy, and not particularly friendly to visitors (other than wanting to part them with their money at places like Bloody Mary’s). Others who had visited Bora Bora before told us that our day was unusual, mostly because of the Hawaiki Outrigger Race, and normally Bora Bora was a sleepy, quiet place. Bora Bora might be worth a return visit at some point, but it’s definitely not very high on our list, especially in contrast with Moorea. I will note that first impressions, when you have but a part of a day to experience a new destination, are critical, and our bus tour was our first (and negative) impression. If the people giving you your tour don’t exude enthusiasm and delight over their own lands (or island), how can visitors expect to be delighted with their visit? Food for thought, even for our friends back on Bonaire, which is seeing an influx of cruise tourism itself even as I write this.

And so ends day 7 of our Pacific Journey.

Photos from this day can be found here.


The Trevails of Posting While Traveling

November 6th, 2007 at 4:29 am (AST) by Jake Richter

As some of you have remarked upon privately, we are woefully behind in updating this blog. I would happily blame technology, and specifically Internet connectivity, especially as even now here in Maui, finally off the boat, we still have a crappy connection. Turns out that here in the Maui Prince Hotel, which is otherwise a very nice hotel indeed, the Internet connection provides only for Web site access – no other type of connection is possible, meaning that the bulk uploading of images is well nigh impossible. I’ve reverted to a Sprint Wireless Broadband connection, but here in the southern part of habited Maui, the signal is almost non-existent, so the connection is painfully slow.

But the reality of the situation is that we’ve just been so very busy that we collapse in exhaustion every night, without the energy to process photos and write more entries, and then are up early in the morning to embark on that day’s adventures.

Similarly, the kids have not been doing traditional school work (math, basically) as a result of our filling our days so well, although they certainly have been learning all sorts of new things.

We hope to catch up with our backlog (which includes hundreds more photos) as we move to the Big Island of Hawaii tomorrow, where we’ll be staying for five nights, and only have a day of activities booked while there at this point.

I’ll try and post Bora Bora tonight, and let’s not discuss how many days ago that actually happened!