Thursday, June 5, 2014

Sri Lanka & Maldives Tour – April 2014


My India area tour was scheduled with Advantage Travel & Tours, Poway, California to complete my visits to all the countries in Asia.  The trip combined set tours by Advantage Travel to Western India with a pre-tour to Sri Lanka and the Maldives Islands and a post-tour to Bangladesh, Myanmar and Laos.  This journal documents the tour of Sri Lanka and the Maldives Islands with Lynn Bishop, Mary Warren and Steve Mathews.   I had roomed with Lynn on many trips in the past and had traveled with Mary on the North Korea trip.  On this trip I roomed with Steve Matthews from Orleans, Vermont, who I had never met but had been a longtime friend of Lynn’s.

Tuesday, April, 01, 2014: Fly Lax to Singapore via Narita, Japan

I had a comfortable 11:20 flight scheduled on United Airlines in a B-787-8.  My ride picked me up at 08:30 and we encountered only moderate traffic on the drive to LAX.  There must have been an accident on the 101 in Calabasas since there were only a few cars on the 101 when we entered in Woodland Hills.  The 405 had its usual slow moving commuter traffic.  The driver had picked me up on may occasions in the past and we had a nice chat on the way to the airport.

Check-in was a breeze and I elected to use the Terminal 6 security entry since it had full body scans where Terminal did not.  Other than the longer walk since I had to return to Terminal 7 for my flights gate the security check was a breeze. I have TSA Pre and didn’t have to remove my computers, shoes or belt.

I spent some time in the United Club waiting for boarding time.  When it came time to board I was one of the first in the number 2 line.  I had selected a window seat since all the available aisle seats in Economy Plus had passengers next to them but several window seats had a vacant seat between the aisle and the window.  This was my first flight on the Boeing 787 Dreamliner.  The overhead bid was large and curved so when you put your carry on in the bin and close it the bag slides to the rear and whe you open the bin the bag slides forward.  (Very convenient)  A video touch screen on the back of each seat contains the controls for not only the videos but also the lights and attendant lights.  The windows do not have shades and a button below the window controls the color of the window supposedly enabling you to turn the window black.  The windows all had a green color when I boarded.  In flight I was on the south side of the aircraft with bright sun shining on me the whole trip.  I could darken the window but not completely which resulted in a spot light effect on my seat as the sun reflected off the wing surface.  I don’t know if it was a mechanical failure or just that you just can’t “close” the window completely.

The seat was very comfortable and with an empty seat next to me I was very comfortable.  Since this was the third long flight for me on a United aircraft in the last 30 days, I had seen all the movies and TV shows I was interested in.  I did watch A.C.O.D. and then turned to watching videos on my cell phone and eventually on my laptop.

They served two meals and a snack on the flight.  The first was chicken and rice, the snack a ham and cheese sandwich and the third a breakfast of eggs and sausage.

My seat mate was an US Army Intelligence Specialist of Japanese descent.  We had some interesting conversations about the current world situations.

Wednesday, April, 02, 2014: Arrive Singapore

We arrived in Narita, Japan 25 minutes early.  I had to pass through a security check point before entering the departure area.  It was a little bit of a pain since I had to remove my shoes, belt, and watch and still got padded down.  From the check point I walked to the United Club to wait several hours before my flight to Singapore.  I was able to access the Wi-Fi and clean out some emails.  When they called my flight I proceeded to the gate and saw Lynn and Mary and was introduced to Steve whom I will be rooming with on most of the trip.  Steve was from Vermont and had traveled with Lynn a lot but not with Bob and Cathy.  The flight was boarding so I got in line.

On the flight I had an inside aisle seat with an unoccupied seat next to me.  I watched the movie on Princess Diana about the period after her separation and divorce from Prince Charles.  It documented her romance with a Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Khan and implied that she used a publicized romance with Dodi Fayed to make the doctor jealous.  It was not something I knew about.

After the meal and the movie I feel asleep for several hours when I woke up the served a light snack and we landed in Singapore right on schedule at 10 minutes after midnight.  Processing through Immigration was easy and it didn’t take long to retrieve my checked bag and I exited the Baggage area and waited for the other three.  Once we were all together we walked to the hotel which was in the terminal.

It turned out that Steve also has a CPAP machine which was larger than mine.  We found that there was an electrical out let beside each bed so we had no problems plugging in our machines.
Thursday, April, 03, 2014: Fly Singapore to Colombo, Sri Lanka, Tour Colombo

Steve showers before bed so I woke before he did in the morning for our 09:55 flight to Colombo.  We had breakfast and checked out of the hotel and took a short walk to the check-in counters.  The hotel had been very convenient.  We could not process through Security until one hour before scheduled departure which surprised me.  The four of us sat outside the Security area until the monitor flashed that we could enter.  Security was easier than Narita but I still had to take off my shoes.  The gate area was large and an Airbus A-380 was just pushing back at the next gate.  I guess the over 500 passengers on the 380 necessitates controlling their processing through Security.

Our flight to Sri Lanka was on a Sri Lankan Airways A-320-200.  In contrast to the previous aircraft it was very much smaller than the 380.  The flight was lightly occupied with almost each passenger having two empty seats next to them.  I slept a little on the three and one half hour flight to Colombo to make up for the short sleep had had in Singapore.

When we landed in Colombo we were bused to the Arrivals Hall.  As I entered the hall I saw a desk for “Visa On Arrival”.  I had processed a visa on line and had a document proving it.  We expected to have to pay a $100 and give them a couple of passport sized photos but when I showed the agent the email document he told me to the go directly to the passport control desk.  There they looked at the email and stamped my passport without my having to pay any additional fees or give them a photo.  Surprised by how easy and quick it took I proceeded to retrieve my bag and exit the baggage area.

When we exited the baggage area we did not have to have our luggage x-rayed contrary to what I have found is often the case in many countries.  Our Sri Lanka tour guide was waiting with a sign for William Bishop (Lynn’s given name).  The guide’s name was Chandana and he introduced himself to us in a quiet voice and led us to the outside curb where we waited as he retrieved his Nessan Caravan from the parking lot.  The Caravan had three rows of seats and enough room in back of the seats to store three of our large bags and our two carry-ons had to be stored on the back seat.

The airport is located 40km from the city and an expressway leads into the city.  We could barely hear Chandana’s commentary on the drive.  He drove slowly but as we got closer to the city center the traffic increased to a very slow moving jam with dozens of tuk tuks dodging in and out of lanes between trucks, buses and passenger cars.  We arrived at The Kingsbury Hotel around 13:00.  It was a large new hotel (opened in December 2012) with several meetings going on.  One of which was the rollout of the Samsung Galaxy 5 smart phone which peaked my interest.  Unfortunately I couldn’t get in the auditorium to see the demonstration.

We checked in but were not assigned a room and were told that the rooms would not be available until 14:00.  The bell boys had unloaded the van and Chandana had departed when Lynn and I realized they had not removed our carry-ons from the back seat.  It was a slight concern but we knew he was going to be returning to take us on a city tour at 15:30.  As we walked around the hotel waiting for our room keys, Chandana appeared.  He had just taken the van to the parking lot.  Lynn told him about the carry-ons and he retrieved them before we got our room key.

They didn’t have a room with twin beds for Steve and I so they assigned us to a room with a roll-a-way and one king size bed.  It was crowded but for one night we could put up with it.  I slept on the roll-a-way.
At 15:30 we met with Chandana and he drove us around the city for a couple of hours.  The traffic was bad and the tour was slow.  Chandana did not comment very often about what we were seeing and Steve who was riding in the front seat had to ask him about various sites we passed.  The answers were in a quiet voice which Steve had to relay to us in the back seats.

The city is crowed with several million people and hundreds of tuk tuks darting around.  We saw a lot of busy light industry, markets, trucks and busses.  Amount the sights we saw was the Dutch Reform church built in 1749; the central bus station, the railroad station, the military headquarters buildings, a Hindu shrine; the city hall that looks like a cross between the US capital building and the white house; Independence Memorial Hall; several old churches, and parks.

There was a long water front but no one swimming.  The waves were the type to entice surfing but we speculated that there must be a strong under tow that is the reason no one is allowed to swim.  Our hotel was next to the old Fort which was converted into government buildings.  It was a massive sight facing the water and a row of cannons faced the water in front of the buildings.

We were told that dinner was served at 18:30 giving us an hour after our tour to unpack and freshen up.  At 18:30 we met in the lobby and were told by the dining room staff that they would not open until 19:00.  The Cricket World Cup was on the TV and Sir Lanka was playing in the semifinals against the West Indies.  The bar furniture was arranged in rows facing a large screen TV.  I had a beer at the bar waiting for the dining room to open and watching the cricket team warm-ups.  I wish I had a better understanding of how the matches are played and the strategy taken to win matches.  About the time I finished my beer they opened the dining room.  In rushed a very large tour group.  The dinner was buffet style and the tour group quickly got in line for the food.  They focused on the salad bar so I went to the main dish section where I selected one or two pieces of meat or fish from each offering to get a flavor for the spices used.  Some were too spicy for my taste and some of the samples had too many bones for my liking.  When I finished with the samples I returned to get a balanced meal of vegetables and rice with the lamb and mint sauce.  For dessert I took a small sample of each type of dishes on display.  Overall it was a good meal and I retired to the room to get ready for the next day’s activities.

Friday, April, 04, 2014: Tour the ancient city of Polonnaruwa UNESCO World Heritage Site

I slept comfortably, although the bed was short and my feet stuck out over the end of the bed and woke at 05:00 to my smart phone alarm and for some mysterious reason it would not stop ringing until I shut off the phone.  Consequently I woke Steve who had planned to sleep another hour.  We went to breakfast at 06:30.  It was a full buffet breakfast with both western and Asian food choices.  I had an egg over and fruit.  None of my usual orange and yogurt was available.

At 07:30 we departed the hotel for an eight hour drive to the center of the country and a visit to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Polonnaruwa.

Along the way we found the road surface to be smooth but slow going with a lot of traffic in the city and for over an hour’s drive out of the city.  Once the traffic thinned out we began to see rice fields, farmland and groves of coconut, banana, figs, cashews and teak trees.  There were still a lot of businesses and homes along the way until we turned off of Route 1 to Route 6.  The pace picked up but we were often slowed down behind trucks, buses and/or tuk tuks.
We were surprised to see groupings of auto parts shops.  Some villages had a dozen or more next to each other on both sides of the road.  They didn’t really compete with each other since one would have just doors, another front ends, another bumpers, etc.  Other villages specialized in vegetable stands, and others with many clothing stores.  At one point we stopped and purchased cashews’ from a road side stand.
As we approached the city of Kurunegala we saw a huge white sitting Buddha statute on top of a mountain overlooking the city.  Past the city we stopped for a break at Saruketha, a Trip Advisor tourist stop, where we were encouraged to purchase a fruit drink and sit in a rustic setting were we were joined by other tour bus groups.  I had a mix fruit drink which was banana based and very tasty.

We continued riding through farm land and groves of various trees.  We saw our first elephants at a tourist stop where you could take a ride on an elephant.  We didn’t stop but continued on to the Rukmali Hotel & Restaurant near Habarana Lake to have lunch.  It was a buffet lunch and we were surprised that there was plenty to eat that wasn’t too spicy.  The dining area was outside, set in a grove of coconut trees, with a corrugated tin roof.  At one point a coconut fell from a tree on to the tin roof.  The sudden load bang sounded like a bomb had gone off.  Even the restaurant help was startled by the noise.

In Habarana we turned off Route 6 to Route 11 stopped by Lake Minneriya in a Nature Preserve were we took photographs of a large standing Buddha.  A few minutes later we entered the city of Polonnaruwa Archaeological Sites and UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It was a huge complex.  We first stopped at the city center which was fortified by wide and high brick ramparts on all four sides.  We visited ruins of the Royal Palace, the council chamber and several other buildings.  The palace was once seven stories high, built by King Parakramabahu the Great during the period 1153 to 1186 AD.  East of the palace was the stone pillars of the council chamber.  Outside the city wall was the remains of the royal bath.

I walked around the grounds and ruins with a large group of school children dressed in blue and white uniforms and then it started to rain.  I quickly returned to the van and retrieved my rain jacket and continued on my tour of the site.  The other members of our group had returned to the van so I quickly finished seeing all the ruins and joined them.

We rode through the large complex and stopped to take pictures of ruins from the vehicle.  When the rain stopped we visited a site which had a number of monkeys running around.  Leaning against a tree was a bicycle and one of the monkeys was having a grand time sitting on the handle bars.  I took one picture which looked like he was steering the bike and another with him balancing on the end of the handle bars.
We continued on our tour of the site passing a troop of school girls in white dresses and blue neckties marching back to their bus from the Gal-Vihara site.  The site contains three Buddha’s carved in the stone of a hill site cave.  They display a standing, sitting and a Buddha lying down.  It was believed that at one time the images were in individual shrine rooms but now they are in one connected display.  The standing Buddha had an unusual position of his hands.

Walking back to our vehicle from the site we were surrounded by playful monkeys.  Our next stop was the Tivanka Imagae House.  The word Tivanka means three bends and the Buddha image inside  was bent in three positions at the shoulder, hip and knee.

The next stop was at the Lotus Pond, built in the form of a full blown lotus flower.  Documentation of the area states that eight Lotus Ponds were built but not all of them have been excavated.  That was our last stop in the Polonnaruwa World Heritage Site.

We then rode back to Habarana and stopped at the Cinnamon Lodge to spend the night.  Along the way we passed a number of military camps.

The Cinnamon Lodge was a large complex of buildings and I found it a challenge to find the building with our room in it within the maze of buildings in the complex.

Dinner was a buffet and I am not sure what I ate but as with the previous meals I sampled many different dishes to test for how hot the spice sauce was in each dish.  Again the chicken pieces had bones in them.
After dinner we returned to our room once I found the correct building, wash clothes and retired.

Saturday, April, 05, 2014: Tour UNESCO World Heritage Sites

I rose at 06:00, showed, shaved and we went to breakfast at 07:00 and once I found my building, I set my packed check-in bag outside my door and then returned to pack up my carry-on.  When I left the room my bag had already been picked up by a bellman.  I checked out and we boarded the bus at 08:00.
We rode south from Habarana on Route 6 and then turned off to take a road to Sigiriya Rock, a UNESCO World Heritage site, built by King Kassapa in the 5th century AD.  It’s also called 'the Lion Rock' or the 'Rock Fortress'.  lt rises more than 1000 ft from the jungle and the area is surrounded by a moat and we observed that there is active archaeological digging in the area.

We didn’t stay long and returned to the main highway and stopped at a Gem Store where we were shown how they mine gems in Sir Lanka.  Inside the store they had recreated a mine shaft and tunnel and after showing us a film on the gem mining we waked through a mine tunnel into the area where craftsmen were cutting, polishing and creating jewelry.  Then we entered the showroom where they sold the gems and jewelry.

Next door was a store that produced silk clothes.  They had a rack of beautiful ties with little elephant figures on them.  I thought of buying one for a Democratic friend but I figured it would not be appreciated.
Back on the highway we rode past a huge wholesale vegetable market with trucks than must supply the small roadside stands with vegetables that were not grown by the family running the stand.

Our next stop was in Dambulla at the UNESCO World Heritage site, the Golden Rock Cave Temple of Dambulla, dating back to the first century BC.  The temple consists of a series of 5 caves containing many statues and paintings including a 47 ft. long statue of Buddha.  On top of the caves is a huge gold Buddha.  The group decided to not climb the stairs to visit the caves.  The area had a lot of cute monkeys.

About twenty minutes down the road we stopped at a Spice Garden at Matale where we were given a tour of different Sri Lanka spices and given samples of the products made from the spices.

Our last stop of the day was at a huge Hindu shrine in Kandy.  I could not believe the number of colorful figures affixed to the towering structure and on the roofs of the buildings at the base of the structure.  It was a great photo shoot.

We finished the day early because of the shorten stay at Sigiriya Rock where the group didn’t want to spend the effort to climb the rock and at the Golden Rock Cave Temple for the same reason and checked into the Kandy, Cinnamon Citadel.  The room was nice and I tried to catch up on my journal.  We had a buffet dinner at 19:30 and retired early.

Sunday, April, 06, 2014: Tour UNESCO World Heritage Sites

We elected to start our tour at 08:30.  I arose at 06:00 and Steve and I went to breakfast at 07:30.  It was a full buffet but no whole oranges, so I had a single egg, bacon and some fruit.  WE sat on the terrace overlooking the river.  It was a beautiful tranquil scene with a single boat ferrying a passenger across the river.

When I returned to my room I was able to call Judy on Vonage.  I packed my bags and was closing down my laptop when I discovered the Red Sox were tied in a game against the Milwaukee Bucks.  I listened to WEEI as David Ortiz pinch hit to no avail and two pitchers struck the Bucks and then I had to go.  We departed the hotel at 08:30 and ten minutes out I realized I had left my light weight vest in the room’s closet so we returned to the hotel, I retrieved the vest and we were back on the road by 08:55.

We rode into the heart of the city of Kandy, past the large Queen’s Hotel and parked at the Sri Dalada Maligawa Sacred Grounds.  As we walked to the entrance we passed a Christian Church which was conducting Sunday service.  It was interesting to hear the organ and choir singing a Christian hymn so close to a Buddhist temple.  Just past the entrance to the church I took a picture of a white roster standing on the passenger’s seat of a tuk-tuk as though he was waiting the driver to return and drive him to his destination.
Inside the sacred grounds we walked a long path to a cluster of buildings.  The main building was the “Temple of the Tooth Relic of Buddha”.

“Since ancient times, the relic has played an important role in local politics because it is believed that whoever holds the relic holds the governance of the country. Kandy was the last capital of the Sri Lankan kings and is a UNESCO world heritage site partly due to the temple.”

After removing our shoes (I put on airline socks) we entered the temple and found a large crowd.  They had separate lines for Foreign Tourists from the locals and we passed through the various rooms.  It was difficult to get good pictures of the relic and the Buddha statues because of the crowd.  One interesting scene was a Buddha carved from a clear gem.  Next door to the Temple were a museum and the King’s Palace at Kandy.  We visited the museum and the three-story Alut Maligawa, a newer and larger shrine hall displaying dozens of sitting Buddha’s.  Along the ceiling were pictures documenting the life of Buddha.

Outside the shrine we walked past the 19th-century Audience Hall, an open-air pavilion with stone columns carved to look like wooden pillars.  From there we entered the Rajah Tusker Hall which houses the stuffed remains of Rajah, the Maligawa tusker (elephant) who died in 1988.  The description of the elephant is as follows:
Rajah, a Sri Lankan tusker belonged to the Sri Dalada Maligawa, Kandy.  He participated at the annual Esala procession in Kandy for about 50 years and carried the sacred casket in the final Randoli perehera from 1950 to 1987.  On August 20, 1986 former Sri Lankan President J. R. Jayewardene declared Raja as a national treasure, in recognition of his valuable services to the religion and culture of Sri Lanka.

We returned to the vehicle and rode to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Paradeniya.  It was used as a pleasure garden by ancient kings and was proclaimed as a Royal Garden in 1780.  In 1821 it was established by the British as the introduction of economically important plants to Sri Lanka.  We spent about an hour and one half walking around the garden and stopping for a cold drink.  Steve demonstrated his talent in Origami by making a ring out of a one dollar bill that has the face of George Washington in place of a ring stone.  He gave it to our waiter as a tip.

From the Gardens we rode up the mountains on a winding road with panoramic views of the valley and the vegetable farms that covered the terrain.  At one point we stopped to purchase a bag of Jack Fruit from a roadside stall.  It was delicious to eat the membrane around the nut (but not the nut).  As we rode higher we started to see tea plantations and soon the hills were covered with just tea plants and tea factories.
We stopped at the Glenloch Tea Factory and had a tour of the factory, an explanation of the process and a cup of black tea and a cup of green tea.  I was surprised to learn the details of the leaf picking and the process, especially the fact that Green Tea is naturally 98% decaffeinated because it does not go through a fermentation process.

Leaving the factory we rode to a restaurant with a panoramic view of the valley and a series of waterfalls.  We had a buffet lunch for $9.  I am not sure what I exactly ate but it satisfied my appetite and was not too spicy.

We were in the mountains over 6,000 feet at some points.  After lunch we rode on to the Heritance Tea Factory, Kandapola, Nuwara Eliya.  It was accessible off the main highway on a single lane 4km drive up a mountain.  It was a challenge to allow the buses and other vehicles coming down the mountain to pass.  The factory was converted into a hotel with nice rooms with balconies overlooking the hills of tea plants.

The air was clear but the hills had a lot of fog and we were greeted at the hotel reservation with a warm face cloth rather than cold face cloths that were given us at the hotels the previous days.  They also served us hot tea rather than the cold fruit juices we had experienced at previous registrations.

The elevator to our floor was an open cage freight elevator and the atrium in the middle of the hotel had a massive pulley system demonstrating the equipment used in the processing of tea.

Our assigned room was not large and had no electrical outlets on the wall of the bed headboards.  There was actually only one available outlet in the room and that was under the desk so I had to use my power strip at the outlet and then string an extension cord across the room and between the beds to provide outlets for our CPAP machines.

We had a heavy afternoon rain so I didn’t get to explore the hotel grounds or use the large balcony outside the room.  The room had no air conditioning unit and just opening the balcony doors provided ample cooling.  Steve knapped while I wrote in my journal until dinner time at 19:30.

We joined Lynn and Mary for a buffet dinner.  The main attraction at the buffet was a roast pig in pineapple.  The salad bar was great and I made my own and after eating the salad had a sampling of the various meat and fish in various sauces and curry.  A slice of pig was delicious.  The dessert table had small servings of cakes and ice cream.  Overall it was a nice dinner and I didn’t over indulge.

When I returned to my room I was able to call Judy on Vonage and I retired at 21:00.

Monday, April, 07, 2014: Visit "The Bridge on the River Kwai" film location and return to Colombo

We arose early and went to breakfast at 06:30 when it opened.  It was a buffet, but slightly different than the previous hotels.  I was able to get a whole orange and my usual one egg over.  The breads were different and a lot of Indian food and spices were offered.

Back in our room I was able to connect with Judy and then took pictures from the balcony.  The air was clear and I had some good shots of the valley below and the mountains above.  We departed the hotel at 08:00.  The narrow road down the mountain was a challenge every time we encountered a vehicle driving up the mountain.  At one point we had to back up to allow a truck to pass so close a passenger in the middle of the front seat of the truck was able to shake my hand.

The tea pickers were starting to work and several hill sides were dotted with the large white bags the pickers carry on their backs.  Eventually we reached the two lane road and rode past Tea Factories into Nuwara Eliya and past the golf course to a gas station were Chandana refueled the van.  Leaving the gas station we rode past the Grand Hotel which was once the President’s Palace.  We then started to ride down the mountains on a switch back road.  The views of the farms below were impressive.  The gardens were very neatly terraced with straight rows between the growing crops.  Even the cow pastures were terraced very neatly.

We passed not only vegetable farms but many more tea plantations and several large tea factory complexes and of course many road side vegetable stands.  It appeared that at every wide switch back curve there was a vegetable stand.  The Mackwoods properties were the largest and they had a Museum and a Factory under the name Mackwoods Labookellie Tea Centre, est. 1841.

Around 09:15 a young man tried to flag us down to purchase flowers he held in his hand.  We rode on without stopped and rounded several curves and he appeared again and we rode past and after another set of curves he was there and another set of curves he was there.  Finally the fifth time he appeared in front of us Steve had Chandana stop and he gave the young man $5 for persistence.  It was one of the most remarkable road side sales pitches I had ever witness.  Steve didn’t take the flowers.

At the town of Kothmale, Chandana decided to take a short cut and we rode down more winding roads but with less traffic, past the Kothmale Reservoir, the Sri Lankan Military Joint Services Language Training Institute, across a narrow bridge to Nawalapitiya and finaly to our first stop at Kitulgala, the location of the film “Bridge On The River Kwai”.  There we walked down a step path through the woods and past several homes to first the spot where the film crew constructed a road to bring in the equipment to build the bridge and the railroad.  From that point we walked on along the river to the point where the bridge had been constructed and blown up.  I climbed down the steep stone steps and path to edge of the river and the remains of the bridge foundation.  The water was low but I could picture were William Holden swam out to set off the dynamite.  The old lady guide explained that a tunnel was built on the other side that allowed the train engineer to escape but 100 locals dressed in Japanese Army uniforms had to fall into the river.  No one was hurt.

After we returned to the van we rode a short distance to the Kithulgala Rest House to have lunch.  For the first time in the country we had an a’ la carte meal.  I had a tuna sandwich and ice tea.

We departed the Rest House at 13:00 and rode for three uneventful hours back to Colombo and The Kingsbury Hotel.  The ride was a lot different approaching the city from the southeast and the mountainous terrain than the ride on Friday when we rode on rather flat terrain northeast of the city.
The closer we got to the city the more the business looked the same on both routes there were numerous auto parts stores with displays of the frontends of Japanese cars at one shop, bumpers at another, seats at another, wheels and hubcaps, rear doors, side doors, and truck cabs.

Even though we thought the people drove dangerously we saw only one accident in our ride around the country and few vehicles with dents or scratches.  I was amazed!

We checked into the hotel at 16:00 and they had a room with twin beds for Steve and I instead of the King size bed with a rollaway we had on the previous visit.  I was able to print out the Lakshadweep Entry Permit that Cathy had sent me in case the airline question our approval to fly to Agatti Island on the 11th.
In my room I rearranged my luggage and carry-on for flying and wrote in my journal.  We had dinner at 19:30 and helped Steve complete a questionnaire for the Sri Lankan Tour Agency.  We remarked on the form that Chandana was too soft spoken and didn’t volunteer information.  He appeared to know the facts but we had to ask him to explain things.  He was an excellent driver.

After helping Steve fill out the form I made myself a salad and had to asked for balsamic vinegar ey did deliver to my table.  For the main I had sweet and sour chicken.  They had a taco bar set up and Lynn had them make several.  He reported that they were very good and had the best taco meat he had ever had.  The dessert bar was extensive but didn’t offer anything unusual and only one flavor of ice cream.

When I returned to my room I found that the Wi-Fi would not allow me to call on Vonage or access any videos.  I remember that on the previous stay I had selected the high speed offering for a $10 fee which the desk clerk waived because of the twin bed foul up on the room.  I decided to not trust that it would be waived again so I accepted the email only option.  Judy would have been with her student any way.  I retired at 21:00.

Tuesday, April, 08, 2014: Fly Colombo to Male, Maldives

At 01:20 I was awaken by a phone call and I thought it was my alarm and hung up on the caller.  The area code indicated that it was a call from the New Brunswick area of New Jersey and I figured it was a recruiter so I didn’t return the call.  I went back to sleep and awoke to my alarm at 02:00 to shower shave and pack for our 03:30 departure for the airport.

Chandana arrived on time and it didn’t take us long to ride to the Bandaranaike International Airport which was 21 miles north of the city.  We checked in without any problems and passed through Immigration with a short wait.  Security was at the gate.  We were so early the gate was not open and we sat in the hallway to wait until an hour before departure.  There were kiosks throughout the terminal with free internet email service but no free Wi-Fi.  I checked my mail while we waited.

When the gate security check point opened I had to remove my watch and shoes but not my laptop or belt.  After setting off the alarm I was given a quick pat down and checked in for the flight.  We waited in the gate area because the seats were more comfortable than in the hall.

The called the boarding by blocks of rows with those in the back called first.  The plane was an A-340-300 which has double isles and I was assigned 25D in back of Steve.  No one was assigned the seat next to me.  I watched some TV shows and a breakfast was served.  The flight only took an hour and fifteen minutes.  We had to walk across the ramp from the aircraft to the Arrival Hall.  Immigration processing took some time due to the large number of passengers on the plane.  No visa was required and it didn’t take long for me to process once my turn came.  Still as long as I took to process my bag had not arrived on the carousel.  Two carousels were being used and one shut down without my bag coming through.  I walked over to the entry point on the other carousel and my bag was one of the last to arrive.  I then had to stand in line to get the bag x-rayed.  I picked the wrong line because the belt kept stopping as customs agents kept asking the x-ray monitor to come look at items that were being retrieved from a passenger’s suitcase.

When I finally exited the Baggage Claim I saw the group had already been greeted by a hotel representative and they were waiting for me.  My bag was loaded on a cart with the others and we exited the terminal to a dock and boarded a small ship that ferried us from Hulhule Island with the Ibrahim Nasir International Airport to Male Island where the Trader Hotel was located.

The high speed ship took less than five minutes to reach Male Island and less than five minutes to walk to the Traders Hotel.  We registered at 09:00 and were told our rooms would not be ready until 14:00.  They served us drinks (no alcohol is allowed on the islands) and we sat in the lobby.  I was attempting to call Judy.  I was able to connect but the connection was poor and Judy couldn’t hear half off what I was saying so we terminated the call and I emailed what I wanted to say.

At 10:00 I suggested that we walk around town.  The hotel was on the north side of the island, one short block from Boduthakurufaanu Magu, the street that circles the island along the water front.  We exited the hotel and walked south to Medhuziyaarai Magu to the People's Majlis (the unicameral legislative body of the Maldives) building and then turned west past the Hukuru Miskiy, (the Friday Mosque).  We entered a Stationary Store to see if they sold paper that Steve could use to make origami figures.  Exiting the store we walked past the Presidents Residence; the National Library; the Prison; the Islamic Center; and turned into the Sultan Park.  The park had two very large groups of school children on two sides so we exited and walked to Chaandhanee Magu, which we were told had numerous tourist shops.  At the corner Steve was approached by a local shop owner attempting to get us to visit his shop which was north on the street.  We turned south on our plan to see Majeedhee Magu, the main street that ran east-west across the middle of the island.

Lynn and Mary decided to return to the hotel and Steve and I entered a book store where he found pads of colorful paper designed to be used for origami.  We past the National Museum and past a fire truck extinguishing a fire in a pile of rubble in a vacant lot.  When we reached Majeedhee Magu, we turned around and walked north on Chaandhanee Magu, past the tourist shops, to the water front where we turned west to the markets.  We entered the vegetable and were offered a sample of a coconut candy that is wrapped in dried leaf to look like a cigar.  It was very tasty.

We walked all the isles in the market including ones with dried fish and then crossed the street to the fish market were rows of fresh caught tuna were on display for sale.  The tuna was in many sizes from a foot to three feet long.  Some of the vendors were selling the raw meat rather than the whole fish.  A few vendors sold other species of fish.

Leaving the fish market we returned to the vegetable market and I bought a roll of the coconut candy and Steve a bag of nuts that tasted like almonds.  Following our purchases we walked back to the hotel.  It was noon and we decided to eat lunch.  Lynn and Mary thought the lunch was going to be served on the top floor so we took an elevator up to the 12th level only to discover that lunch would be served in the Lime Dining Room on the 1st floor.  We rode the elevator back to the Lime Dining Room and found that the buffet had not yet been set up but the drinks were set up so we had a drink and waited until the buffet was ready only to be trumped by a large group coming in from a conference.  After they got their food we got ours.  I was able to make a big salad and had a few pieces of beef on rice and two small pieces of fried fish.

After lunch we returned to the lobby to see if our rooms were available.  Steve and my room was available so before 14:00 we finally were able to unpack and rest in our room.  It was of fair size with twin beds and an outlet on the wall between the beds.  I plugged in my power strip and we both were able to connect our CPAP machines.

Steve washed his clothes while I wrote in my journal.  He then took a nap and I took a walk around the island.  I turned west out of the front door of the hotel on Ameer Ahmed Magu and then turned north on Lotus Goalhi to Boduthakurufaanu Magu and then followed it all the way to the south east end of the island.  Along the way I passed many small ferry boats, the ferry terminal, several parks, and stopped at the Artificial Beach where I observed Muslim ladies in the water in full black headdress.  Crazy!

At one park there was a soccer game and in another volleyball games.  The girls were wearing black headdresses with bright orange tops.  It was a very colorful scene.  The next beach I can upon was Varunulaa Raalhugandu at the southwest tip of the island.  It was getting dark so I headed backon Moonlight Hingun and some back alleys until I reached Majeedhee Magu and turned west and then took some alleys to get back to Ameer Ahmed Magu and eventually the hotel.

The four of us went to dinner to a restaurant recommended by the Concierge.  It was the Aioli Restaurant, just a short walk from the hotel.  The group wanted Pizza.  I had a Bolognese Pizza.  It was the first time and it wasn’t bad.  The service was not timely and it took a long time for us to get the bill.

We returned to the hotel after dinner and I called Judy and then washed some clothes and went to bed.

Wednesday, April, 09, 2014: Tour Male, Maldives

I slept soundly until after 09:00.  The short nights had caught up with me.  After taking a shower I discovered that my clothes had not completely dried hanging in the closet.  I plugged in the hair dryer and finished drying them.

At 09:45 I joined Steve, Mary and Lynn for breakfast.  They had already finished and were conversing with one of the waiters who spoke excellent English.  He was a native of one of the outer islands but had lived on Male for over ten years.  Steve showed him pictures of some of the fruits we had seen in the market and he explained what they were and how they were eaten.

We returned to our room at 10:30 and after straitening up Steve and I decided to take a walk around the island.  We left the hotel at 11:10 and headed west on Ameer Ahmed Magu until it ended at Majeedhee Magu which we then walked until it reached the sea wall and Boduthakurufaanu Magu.  After some picture taking we walked south until Boduthakurufaanu Magu ended at the commercial area.  We encountered a Driving School and watched the student drivers drive a sort of obstacle course in small cars while those learning to drive Honda motor bikes weaved around them.

We walked around the ferry terminal and down an alley to the Football Association’s practice fields.  There we walked south to Boduthakurufaanu Magu and continued to circle the island walking past the beaches and parks I had walked past the day before.  At Artificial Beach we saw a woman in black Muslim in the water with her children.  We completed the walk at 12:45.  I was soaking wet with perspiration and when I returned to my room I washed out my clothes again.

At 14:00 we rendezvoused with Mary and Lynn for lunch.  I had our new found friendly waiter make me a pot of ice tea.  Here to fore when I have ordered ice tea it came in a glass half filled with liquid surgar and slices of limes.  This time I got a full pot of tea with a tall glass of ice.  It was great!  For lunch I made a salad to my liking with balsamic dressing and then had a few pieces of beef in a sauce over rice and two pieces of deep fried chicken with a spicy coating.  Thank God for the ice tea!

We were the last to eat lunch and they started to set up for dinner so we returned to our rooms for a 16:00 scheduled tour.  We met our local guide, Yasaar, in the lobby at 16:00.  Lynn skipped the tour.  Yasaar spoke excellent English and provided detail commentary on the sites we visited.  He described the People's Majlis building and then the Medhuziyaaraiy which is the tomb of Maulana Al-Hafiz Abul Barakaath Yoosuf Al-Barbari of Morocco who converted Maldives into Islam in 1153.  It is a small building in front of the President’s Residence.  We then entered the grounds of the Hukuru Miskiy, (the Friday Mosque) which was constructed of coral blocks and is the only known building of that construction in the world.

On the grounds of the Mosque was the grave yard of the kings and their families.  The size of the stones represented the relative age of the buried person (the taller the stone the older the person was at their death).  From Hukuru Miskiy we visited the Sultan Park and Yasaar described the buildings and pointed out Fruit Bats hanging in the trees.

Across the street we visited the November 3rd Memorial that commemorates the soldiers and civilians killed when a group of eighty Tamil mercenaries, hired by two Maldivian businessmen disgruntled with the President Gayoom, landed on Male’ on November 3, 1988, and quickly took over the airport.  They were caught in a shootout with military forces in Male’ and were forced to retreat after India deployed 1600 paratroopers to the Maldives on Gayoom’s request.  They blew a hole in the side of the wall that surrounds the Police Headquarters.  That hole now frames a beautiful symbol of the event and is flanked by flags on both sides of the hole.  At the same location was a traffic circle with the Republican Monument, a large aluminum sculpture that is the symbol of the country.  It represents different key historical events when viewed from different sides.  It is difficult to describe in this journal.  Northwest of the monument was the Islamic Center which was the largest Mosque on the island with a capacity of 5,000 worshipers.

From the Mosque we walked across Republican Square where Yasaar explained that a large at the end of the square was named after an 18 year old who was the first one killed in the November 3rd attack.

We crossed the square and walked along the waterfront to the vegetable market and entered were Steve and I had purchased items the day before.  Yasaar provided us with more details on several of the fruits, nuts and honey than we had been able to obtain the day before.  We walked down the aisle and exited at the west end of the building and then crossed the street to enter the fish market.  Again Yasaar was able to provide more detail on the various types of fish on display.  He told me that if the fish is not sold in one day it is packed up and send to one of the islands that specializes in producing dried fish.  None of the fish goes to waste.  We got a kick out of watching one of the men gutting fish with a cigarette with a half inch ash in his mouth.  He managed to finish a stack of fish before the ash fell.

We walked out the south side of the fish market past a Mosque to an ornate building that houses the Supreme Court of the Maldives.  The building was built by one of the Presidents that behaved as a dictator and spend lavishly on himself.  His replacement would not live in the building and it became the Supreme Court of the Maldives.  That was the last attraction on the tour.  We thanked Yasaar for his excellent tour and commentary and walked back to the hotel.

At 19:00 we returned to the Aioli Restaurant for dinner.  I had the catch of the day, a tasty grilled white fish.  After dinner we returned to the hotel and I called Judy and packed for the next morning departure.

It had been an interesting experience to visit the two countries and I then was looking forward to touring parts of India.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Vanuatu Tour – January 2014

Overview: Having started 2014 with a two week expedition to rarely visited Sub-Antarctic islands south of New Zealand in the Southern Ocean and then visited two rarely visited by Americans, Australian islands in the Indian Ocean I finished my trip in the Pacific Ocean visiting Vanuatu, a UN country.  It would be my 187 out of 193 UN countries to visit.

The Advantage Travel & Tours group I had started with on the expedition in the Southern Ocean to sub-Antarctic islands had dwindled to five of us to visit the Indian Ocean islands (Laurie Campbell, Bob Ihsen, Del and Linda McCuen) and then to just Bob Ihsen and me visiting Vanuatu.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014: Fly Perth to Port Vila, Vanuatu via Brisbane, Australia

After barely making the connection  by just three minutes in Perth from the flight into the International Terminal from Christmas Island to the flight to Brisbane at the Domestic Terminal a twenty minute bus ride away, I flew a ‘red-eye’ to Brisbane landing at 05:05.  I had my usual trouble passing through security in Australia where they make me shed my belt, shoes and watch and then go over my carry-on and back pack scrubbing it for explosive residue.  I told Bob to go ahead and to meet me outside the Air New Zealand Lounge.

When I finally got everything back in order after the security check I proceeded to the lounge and didn’t see Bob.  At the lounge I found that since I was flying on Virgin Australia I could not use it.  I returned to the main Departure concourse and couldn’t find Bob so I walked to the flight’s’ gate which was at the very end of a long wing of the terminal.  It was a long walk but they had interesting modern art displays on the wall and in one area four very colorful larger than life size wooden figures in a musical theme.

Bob was not in sight around the gate so I walked back to the main concourse and still did not see Bob.  I had not eaten breakfast and our flight was not scheduled to depart until 10:30 so I ordered a Subway 6-inch breakfast sandwich (poached egg, bacon, cheese and tomato) and hoped that Bob would find the food court that I was in.

Bob didn’t show so I returned to the gate at 06:45.  Near the gate was a large table with six chairs on each side and 12 power outlets in the middle.  I set-up my laptop and found the airport had three hours of free Wi-Fi.  I was processing email when Bob arrived.  He had eaten at a different food court.

Our flight departed on time and landed at Baurerfield International Airport (named after Lt Colonel Harold W. Bauer, a USMC fighter pilot ACE and WWII Medal of Honor recipient for his actions on Guadalcanal) in Port Vila, Vanuatu at 14:05.  Passport control was fast and easy and outside the baggage room we found a man with the name of our hotel (Grand Hotel & Casino).  He directed us to a waiting area until everyone had exited the Baggage area.  We then boarded a small bus towing our luggage in a trailer (a common practice in Australia and New Zealand) and drove us to the hotel.

The Grand Hotel and Casino was the largest and tallest (7 stories) building in the country and is located at the south end of the city center.  Just north of it was the city market in a very large covered building with open sides and an adjacent large parking lot.  The bus turned into the parking lot and stopped at the water’s edge where a small open sided boat was waiting to take passengers to Iririki Island about 400 yards out in Vila Bay.  After they were off loaded the bus stopped in from of the hotel and we got off and checked in.
Our room was OK with a nice balcony but only one outlet at the head of the bed and one desk and no table.  There was a window between the sleeping area and the bathroom.  So as not to shock us old fat men viewing each other in the buff there was a power shade that closed the window.  I requested a power strip from the front desk and was able to plug in the bedside lamp and my power strip to plug in my CPAP machine, laptop and camera battery charger.  Bob used the desk to write his journal and I used the laptop on my lap to write mine.  We had a nice view of the Iririki Island Resort’s 11 bungalows facing the bay and the waterfront of the city since the bay curved northwest from our location which faced west.

After unpacking I went for a walk through the city main street (Lini (Kumul) Highway).  On the east side of the road were several open front stores that were typical of waterfront island resorts selling post cards, bathing suits, suntan lotion, snorkeling masks and fins and children’s water toys.  You could be walking the street and see the same stores in a Caribbean Island, Venice Beach, Hawaii or Florida.  On the west side of the street was the Fruit and Vegetables Market.  A park with a dirt area were men were playing Bowls, a form of lawn bowls without the lawn in which the objective is to roll biased balls so that they stop close to a smaller ball called a "jack" or "kitty".  It is popular in Australia on lawns and hard dirt in New Zealand.  Between the Bowls area and the sea wall was an area where clothes were sold by “Mamas”.  The later typical of African clothes markets.

Past the park area there were tourist shops, ‘Supermarkets’ and open front cafes on both sides of the road.  The Post Office had a very large colorful modern art façade.  I visited the Information Center and picked up a fact sheet on the nation.  There are 83 islands in a Y-shaped chain of diverse range of scenery from volcanoes to coral atolls with sandy beaches.  Each island has its own distinct culture and language.  The capital is Port Vila on the island of Efate.  Espiritu Santo is the largest.
The following is a short background on the island:

It is thought the first people to reach Vanuatu were the Lapita from Papua New Guinea, who arrived about 2000 BC.  The first European explorers arrived in May 1606 as part of a Spanish expedition headed by Pedro Fernandez de Quiros. British explorer James Cook, who drew the region’s first charts, arrived in the islands on 16 July 1774, christening them the New Hebrides.  In 1848, Rev John Geddie established a Presbyterian mission on Aneityum.
The people were decimated by European diseases, leading to a huge population decline. Although protestant missionaries put a stop to traditional practices such as cannibalism and initially, kava drinking, today’s traditional cultural life (kastom) remains strong, particularly in the outer islands. By 1844, the country’s first trading post was established on Aneityum (the southernmost island at the base of the Y) and in 1906, the Anglo-French Condominium of the New Hebrides was created, giving France and Britain dual administrative powers.
US forces arrived in Vanuatu in 1942 to counter Japan’s rapid advance through the Pacific.  Bases were built at Havannah Harbour and Port Vila on Efate, and on Espiritu Santo.  Some 500,000 troops were stationed at Espiritu Santo over the course of the war, making it the largest US base in the Pacific outside of Hawaii.  Vanuatu achieved independence under its present name in July 1980, and has a democratic government.  The nation's name was derived from the word vanua ("land" or "home"), which occurs in several Austronesian languages, and the word tu ("stand").  Together the two words indicated the independent status of the new country.

Vanuatu’s official languages are Bislama, English and French.  There are 115 ‘mother tongues’ in common use – the world’s highest concentration of different languages per head of population.  English is widely spoken, and most people speak some Bislama.  Business communication is conducted in English, French or Bislama.

From the Information Center I walked back toward the hotel.  I stopped at a Tour Agency to inquire about island tours.  After getting brochures I continued and cut down a side street to the sea where there I walked along the sea wall past the “Mamas” tents, past small docks with ski boats, Snorkeling, scuba diving and water cruise vendors.  I walked past the hotel and up a slight rise past a gas station and a supermarket and then back to the hotel.

I was hot and thirsty when I reached the hotel so I stopped to have the local Tusker beer.  As I was drinking the beer at the bar a middle age man sat down next to me and ordered a beer.  He asked me where I came from and we engaged in a conversation.  He was an ex-restaurant owner who fell in love with Vanuatu and its life style.  He then bought a small resort and has moved to Vanuatu to manage it.  He was an interesting character and I had another beer to continue talking to him.

At 18:30 Bob and I went to dinner in the hotel.  We sat at the window in back of the restaurant with a great view of the bay.  We ordered the country’s national dish “Laplap” diner.  It incorporates fish, root vegetables such as taro and yams, fruits, and vegetables.  While we waited for the meal to be served we watched the sun set.  The scene was picture beautiful with an orange color sunset and boats lined with colored lights.

After dinner we returned to our room and wrote in our journals.

Thursday, January 23, 2014: Fly Port Vila to Tanna Island, Vanuatu

I woke at 06:00 to get a head start on re arranging my luggage so that I took less than 10 kilos in my carry-on bag.  First I showered and shaved.  The “hot” water never got past warm but I gutted it out.  After emptying the contents of my carry-on I put in just my toilet kit and CPAP machine.  In an outer pocket I put my bathing suit, a t-shirt, laundry soap and small brush, sink stopper and my pills.

Bob got up and we went to breakfast.  It was raining and we decided to skip our plan to take the 09:00 two hour tour of the city.  When we returned to our room I talked to Judy on Skype and did some email clean up.

By 09:00 the rain had stopped so we decided to try to book a city tour with a drop off at the airport.  We walked across the parking lot alongside the hotel to a tourist agent that Bob had talked to the day before about arranging a tour.  She was busy so we started out for the Tourist Agency I had talked to the day before and found it was further than I had remembered so we reversed direction and returned to the first agency.  When or turn came to be waited on she told us the 09:00 tour had left and that she couldn’t arrange anything for us.  As we left the building a woman that had been in there was sitting outside and inquired if we got what we wanted.  When we told here that the agent couldn’t arrange for a driver/guide to give us a two hour tour and drop us off at the airport she remarked she could arrange it to start at 10:00.

We returned to the hotel and checked out and wheeled our bags back to the tourist agency.  The agent inside was surprised to see us and had no knowledge of what the other woman had told us but she had a driver/guide she could call.

The guide arrived shortly with a van and we loaded our bags in and started the tour.  He drove us south past No. 2 Supermarket (the guide explained the numbering of supermarkets) to the Main Wharf where we drove past all the vans lined up for a cruise ship arrival and the vendor shacks to sell tourist items.  The guide told us the city is planning on building permanent stalls to replace the blue tarp framed stalls.  He drove us around the Pango area overlooking Erakor Bay past the Amalfi Court Resort and then along the Erakor Lagoon past the Vila Bay Heath Center to Chief’s Nakamal.  A Chief’s Nakamal is a building in most villages where the village elders meet to discuss village issues.  The sides of the building is very colorful weaved palm leafs.  Across a park was the National Museum of Vanuatu.  We rode past the front of the museum and then stopped at the Parliament House for pictures.  The Chinese built a beautiful building.  In front of the building was a statue of a Vanuatu couple and child.  In front of the statue was the symbol of Vanuatu which is a circle of wild pig’s horns.  Bob and I got a nice picture of the statue through the circle with the Parliament Building in the background.

Next to the Parliament was the construction by the Chinese of a large convention center.  The picture of the building indicates it will be an impressive structure.  We then rode through the working class neighborhood of small homes, past the site of the court house lot which had burned down and the town hall.
Our guide explained the governing system in Vanuatu before Independence.

Settlers came looking for land on the islands to establish cotton plantations.  When international cotton prices collapsed, planters switched to coffee, cocoa, bananas, and, most successfully, coconuts.  Initially, British subjects from Australia made up the majority of settlers, but the establishment of the Caledonian Company of the New Hebrides in 1882 attracted more French subjects.  By the start of the 20th century, the French outnumbered the British two to one.

The mixture of French and British interests in the islands brought petitions for one or another of the two powers to annex the territory.  On the verge of a settlement a typhoon hit the islands causing great damage.  Both the French and the English worked together to repair the damage.  As a result in 1906, France and the United Kingdom agreed to administer the islands jointly.  They called it “the British-French Condominium”, it was a unique form of government.  The separate governmental systems came together only in a joint court.  Melanesians were barred from acquiring the citizenship of either power.  We rode by separate French and English Police stations and jails during our tour.

Challenges to the joint form of government began in the early 1940s.  The arrival of Americans during World War II, with their informal habits and relative wealth, contributed to the rise of nationalism in the islands.  A referendum was voted on to give the locals the choice to become a French Colony, an Australian Territory or an Independent Country.  They chose the latter but have found that self-government is more costly that they expected and the roads and infrastructure has declined.

Our next stop was the War Memorial across from the Reserve Bank of Vanuatu.  The Memorial honors those from the islands that served in World War I and II.  It overlooks the city and was a great photo stop.  From there we rode down the hill past the Teacher’s School, and around Fatumaru Bay and stopped for pictures across the bay of the city.  There was a small beach with kids swimming and a little bit up the road cows grazing.

Our final stop was the Domestic Terminal at the airport.  It was noon when we checked in for our 14:00 flight to Tanna.  The terminal was small and at first the majority of the people in the terminal were airport employees eating lunch.  The café was serving local food that did not appeal to either of us.  We walked over to the International Terminal next door to find more palpable food but everything was closed so we returned to the Domestic Terminal and a drink and a bag of chips to tide us over.  A group of Chinese checked in to the flight.  Two of the group was teenagers and they were horsing around a lot.  Then an elderly Australian woman checked in.  We had to pay a 200 vt (US$2) departure tax before departing the terminal.  When it appeared that an agent was ready to check us in the woman rushed to the door.  I lined up behind her and she told me she wanted to get on the plane “before those boys did”.  Their horsing around had bothered her sitting in the terminal.  Her name was Jill and she had been a school teacher in Africa, but for younger children and teen agers bothered her.  When I asked her if she had the departure tax and gotten her boarding pass stamped she said she wasn’t leaving the country and she didn’t think it applied.  I told her it did and she rushed to pay it before the Chinese boys got in line for the flight.

It turned out that Bob and I were assigned to row 1 and Jill in row 2 and the Chinese in the back of the plane.  The plane was a Twin Otter DHC 6-310.  I introduced myself to the pilot and he told me he was from Australia and had just joined Air Vanuatu from flying for Buffalo Airways in Yellowknife, Canada.  He was impressed that I had visited the Buffalo Airways Operation just last year and had met the character that ran the operation and saw the early 1950 Fords and Mercury’s he had in a hanger.

It was a 55 minute flight to Tanna Island south of Port Vila.  The airport was named “Aeroport de Whitegrass Tanna” which was interesting since we were staying at the White Grass Ocean Resort.  Jill was also staying at the Resort so she spotted a pickup truck with the resort name on its side outside the terminal as we waited for our bags to be delivered to Baggage Claim.  The truck had bench seats in the back and a two-step box was used for us to climb in the back.  Bob had trouble getting over the side of the truck bed so Jill traded places and let Bob ride in front with Jill and I in back.

Less than ten minutes after we landed we were at the resort driveway and we passed a small golf course and tennis court down the road to the resort lodge where we were greeted by the managers: Nicola and Jean-Francois Crinquand and their staff.  The receptionist handed a fruit punch drink and the registration form.  We were told our luggage had been carried to our “bure”. (Bure is the Fijian word for a wood-and-straw hut, sometimes similar to a cabin).

The lodge was open to let the breeze flow through.  In the middle was the bar and off to the south side were the kitchen and reception desk and small shop.  Past the reception was the management office.  Facing the ocean was the dining area.  The bures were north of the lodge accessed by sandy paths though manicured lawns, flowers, palm trees and native sculptures.  Down a path from the lodge was a long concrete pier leading to a small dock.  A rope was attached to the dock so if you wanted to swim or snorkel you could use the rope to pull you back through a rip tide if it existed.

Our bure had a high pitch grass roof with just a fan for cooling.  There was mosquito netting hanging over the beds.  I took the larger of the two beds because it had the power outlet next to the headboard.  The bure had a beautiful view of the ocean and was a short walk to the pool.

Bob started to write in his journal and was getting bothered by mosquitoes.  In the room there was an ashtray with a coil of insect repellant that if burned would repel flies and mosquitoes.  I used up half the cheap box of matches trying to get the coil to burn before I realized that I needed to turn the fan off until the coil started to burn.  Its flow was blowing the matches out before the coil would catch on fire.
I walked the grounds and took a swim.  The pool was warmer than my shower had been in the Grand Hotel that morning.  It was not a lap pool but it did feel good until I got out and found that flies were attracted to my wet legs.  After I dried my legs they lost interest.

At 17:30 I stopped in the lodge for a beer and the cocktail of the day (a coconut and pineapple rum drink) before dinner.  I was able to connect to the internet and talk to Judy over Skype but then the connection dropped.  Bob wanted to skip his post trip to New Caledonia and I had been communicating with Cathy Parda to change his tickets and it was frustrating that the internet was not connecting.  I could connect to the Resort router but then I got a message that the DNS Server didn’t recognize the router.  I tried to trace the problem and discovered the reception desk and back office were on different systems.  I disconnected the router and plugged it back in and the DNS still couldn’t find it.  Cathy must have sensed that I was having a problem and sent Bob’s revised ticket information to Nicola to relay a printed copy to Bob.
The menu for dinner was listed on a chalk board.  I had spicy Thai fish cakes with a small mixed salad and pan seared yellow fin tuna in garlic butter sauce, steamed rice and a mixed salad.  For desert I had a scoop of rum raisin ice cream.  After we ordered and were waiting for our food the sun set and we had a beautiful unobstructed view.

We signed up for two tours for the next day and retired to our bure for the night.

Friday, January 24, 2014: Tour Tanna Island, Vanuatu

I slept pretty well with the mosquito netting dropped around my bed.  It did tangle with my CPAP machine and I never heard any mosquito’s flying around.  The shower was hot with strong water pressure.  Bob and I went to breakfast at 07:15.

The breakfast menu was written on a blackboard displaying a choice of punch or juice, fruit platter, cereal and a basket of toast or pancakes or fried eggs and bacon.  We ordered the eggs.

Our first tour of the day left at 08:30 on the 3 hour ‘Lagalangia Kustom Village – Lowinio’ tour.  Phillip was our driver and guide and we were in a 4WD Toyota Land Cruiser.  The temperature was pleasant and we rode with the windows down.  He turned south out of the resort driveway and drove past the airport toward the town.  The road was not paved and was full of pot holes and at one point a mud hole.  The bridges across deep gullies and streams were British Army ‘Bailey’ bridges.  A type of portable, pre-fabricated, truss bridge developed in WWII.  Phillip told us they were installed after a typhoon had wiped out the concrete and wooden bridges built by the French and English during their joint administration of the island prior to Independence.

About five minutes south of the airport we passed a set of shipping containers painted white with windows and a red awning.  It was the office of an Australian planning to set-up a 4 wheel ATV Rental Agency.  As rough as the roads were on the island it makes more sense to have an ATV than a Rental Car Agency.  Continuing along the road to the town we were mostly in rain forest with a few wooden vendor huts, mostly vacant but some selling pineapples or bananas or gasoline in small containers.  Pigs, chickens, horses and cattle were grazing on the tall grass.  Phillip told us the name “White Grass” came from the sun shining on the tall grass giving it a white look.

We rode past a school.  It had a color coded map of the world and a large map of the Vanuatu islands painted on the wall of one of the buildings.  Phillip told us there were English and French schools on the island.  He had attended an English school.  Past the school was the French run power station.  The main source of power for the island was diesel generators but some solar and wind turbines are used.  Most of the island does not have electricity and uses kerosene lamps in the huts.

Phillip told us that arranged marriages were no longer practiced on the island.  As a matter of fact he married a Samoan woman he met while on a vacation.  When a girl marries she moves to her husband’s village and her first born when he or she grows up has to move to her birth place village.  Phillip has sent his oldest daughter after she finished high school to live in Samoa.

As we approached the Lenakel town center there was a small strip mall with the National Bank, Telcom Office, and a few stores.  Down the hill from the mall were a dry river bed and then a few stores in concrete buildings leading to the town center with a large area set-up as a Fruits and Vegetable Market.  We saw peanuts still attached to their plants and root vegetables lined up in a row.  Across from the market was the ocean with a few boys swimming off a stone covered beach.

A large map of the island and of the Lenakel area with locations numbered and a directory between the two maps was displayed at a bus stop.  It was “Proudly Sponsored By Tafea Province and Tafea Tourism”.  Men drive pickup trucks which serve as buses around the island.  They have a large red B on their license plates.  Behind the bus stop was the covered market.  In between the covered market building and the bus stop people had displays of their fruits and vegetables laid out on colorful cloth.  South of that area there was a very large tree and many of the vendors set up beneath the tree.  The men wore shorts and colorful shirts and were bare footed.  The woman wore colorful dresses or shirts and shirts.  It was typical of Caribbean or Polynesian island attire.

We walked around the market taking pictures.  In some countries I have seen chickens sold at market in cages.  Here they were lying down with their feet tied together.  When we got back in the Land Cruiser we rode around town.  The Fish Market was in a concrete building not far from the market building.  The town had a traffic circle with a monument with a rooster on top in the middle of the circle.

The Lenakel Municipal building was in a concrete structure south of the traffic circle.  Up on the hill overlooking the town was an old wooden Presbyterian Church building across from the Lenakel Presbyterian College.

We left the village and drove up the hill and encountered our first paved road.  The steep hill through the rain forest was paved in concrete and had a street sign saying it was Wvara King Street Funded by PWD in collaboration with Amoros Keipal Walalo.  The paved road soon ended when the grade leveled off and we came upon the Lowinio village and a Baha’i religious building.  A short distance away was a large clearing ringed with Banyan trees.  One of the trees had a large square cavity that served as a room.  Someone had painted a house number on the side of the cavity.  On the north side of the clearing was a grass covered open sided lodge that Phillip told us was the village elders meeting place.  There was also a round dry palm leaf roofed enclosed hut along the edge with grass growing out of the roof.

There were three barefoot boys and a girl playing in the clearing.  The boys wore colorful shorts, the oldest with a dirty t-shirt.  The girl wore a ragged dress.  They were happy to pose for pictures.

We got back in the Land Cruiser and drove a short distance to the Lekalangia Cultural Village.  There we were met by Rita, dressed in what looked like a grass dress.  She was our guide for the tour of the village.  She led us down a path through the rain forest with coffee plants along the way.  She stopped to pick a straight branch from a tree and showed us how they peel the bark from the plant and dry them to make the grass dresses.

We stopped in an open sided round dry palm leaf roofed hut in which she showed how it was constructed using vines to lash the frame together and the weaving of dry palm leaves to form the roof.  She also explained that the villagers have resisted the trappings of Western culture and continue to embrace a subsistence way of life dominated by their belief in “Kastom”.  (Kastom is a pijin word used to refer to traditional culture, including religion, economics, art and magic in Melanesia.).  After the rest stop we continued down the path as Rita explained the use of the plants and trees we were passing.

In the village center we entered an open sided building with mats on the floor and a woman in a grass dress with large banana leaves on the mat preparing a traditional village meal similar to the ‘Laplap” dish I had at the Grand Hotel but way more authentic.  She started with coconut shredded and molded into a dough base.  She used a stick that had very short bristles to shred roots into the dough.  Then she flattened the dough and covered it with leaves and small chunks of vegetables, finishing by wrapping the mixture in the banana leaf and tying it close with thin shreds of a leaf.  All this time a young girl in a grass skirt sat and watched the preparation.

In another area of the hut a woman was uncovering a cooked meal.  Another woman was heating stones in a fire and when the first woman had completed wrapping the meal she made they placed it on the hot rocks moving them around using two sticks like tongs.  The meal was then covered by leaves and dirt covered the leaves.

The meal that was uncovered was laid out in front of us on a large banana leaf and unwrapped to show the white dough in a long roll.  Using a sharp edge bamboo knife the roll was cut into small pieces and placed on a leaf.  From another cooked packet eggs, bits of fish and chicken were added to our leaf and served to us.  I found the meal to be surprisingly delicious salted with sea salt.

In the yard outside the hut a group of children were playing a form of blind man’s bluff.  The girls were wearing the grass skirts and the boys a few leaves hanging from a rope around their waist.  The youngest boys were naked.

After we finished our meal we moved to another open area where straw mats were laid out and native handicrafts, beads and coconut cups were displayed for sale.  A young mother with painted symbols on her cheeks holding a baby greeted us.

The village chief came out to greet us.  He was naked except for a tuff of grass covering his private parts.  The grass was tied together with a rope around his waist and the knot of grass stuck out like a short erection.  He was a handsome man with a big grin and a curly hairy chest and grayish hair.  In the hut he had emerged from sat a number of men wearing the same private parts cover.

The chief shook our hand and in good English explained how his village wanted to maintain their culture and way of life.  He told us that they are completely self-sufficient growing their own food and raising pigs, goats and cattle to eat.  If they have a very good crop they will take it to the market to trade or sell to buy things like machetes and other farm instruments.

The chief’s son and a young boy then demonstrated how to make fire rubbing two sticks together.  He held a narrow foot long stick in one hand and rubbed it very rapidly in a grove on a bigger stick held firmly by the young boy.  Soon a small pile of shavings formed at the end of the grove and soon the pile started to glow and then start to burn.  Other shavings were added and a flame started up and was transferred to a fire setting.  It was remarkable how quickly the procedure took to generate the flame.

Next the men and boys formed a circle with the woman outside the circle.  The men chanted and started to dance around while the woman jumped up and down to the rhythm of the chant.  They group worked themselves into a frenzy stomping and jumping.  It was a sight to witness but wouldn’t play on ‘Dancing with the Stars’.

After the dance Rita lead us back up the path to our Land Cruiser.  Phillip then drove us back down the mountain passing the hospital on the way and a French school and to the traffic circle in the town.  On the way back to the Resort we passed fish hanging from a tree limb for sale along the road and a small pond with a lime stone bluff.  Phillip told us it was the quarry where they excavated the limestone for the road surface.  It then served as a fresh water hole for goats and cattle.  We also passed the Tafea College campus and got to the Resort by 12:30 in time for lunch.

Again the menu was on the blackboard.  I selected the Toasted tuna and cheese sandwich with fries and a mixed salad.  The bread was a little strange for a toasted sandwich since it was not dense and the tuna and cheese would ooze out.  The fries were not deep fried and also a little different.

At 14:30 Jill met with us as we prepared for the evenings visit to the Yasur Volcano.  We had to sign a release and since we would arrive after dinner we had to order our dinner in advance so they could serve us on our return.  Again the menu was on a black board.  I selected the Grilled Mahi-Mahi with white wine and lemon sauce.

The Land Cruiser was being serviced and we had to wait until 15:00 to start our long drive across the mountains to the east side of the island and then down and around and up the volcano.  I packed my rain jacket and floppy hat with the chin string since Phillip told us it would be very windy at the rim of the volcano.

We started out with Jill in the front seat and Bob and I in back repeating the route we had taken that morning to the town and then turned east up the paved hill and then into rutted rough roads through rain forest, farm land passing horses, cattle, pigs, goats and chickens.  In some of the villages we saw boys playing in open areas.  They were very friendly waving and posing for a snapshot as we passed with our cameras raised.  At one point we passed the new Mormon Church under construction.

About thirty minutes into our journey we encountered a tree house and 15 minutes after that a cemetery and a short distance later we stopped and walked to an open area where we were greeted by a group of men women and children from a local church.  We were each handed a bouquet of flowers, Jill’s by a baby that could barely walk.  The minister spoke to us and explained the group was a choir and then they sang several religious songs.  Phillip passed the minister an envelope (it came from our fee for the tour) and we returned to the Land Cruiser and our journey.

An hour into our trip we reached a point in the mountains were we could see the coast and sea on the east side of the island.  The road down from the mountain was very steep and we entered a point where it was paved and rounded a bend in the road we saw the volcano in the distance.  It was erupting puffs of smoke and a line of clouds hung just above it.

As we descended and began to level off the paving ended and we were bumping along again trying to avoid pot holes and ruts in the road we passed a group of musicians with homemade string instruments.  An hour and one half after we left the resort we entered the lava and black ash field at the base of the volcano.  We could clearly see the puffs of black smoke erupting every five minutes or so.  The lava terrain looked very much like the moon’s surface.  We had to ford a shallow river as we were circling around to the south side of the mountain.  The wind was strong and at one point it had created a sharp ridge of black lava ash up the side of the volcano.  A group of young people were at the base of the ridge holding snow boards.  As we drove by a young lady with a snow board under her arm was climbing the ridge to slide down.

We left the lava ash plain and re-entered a road through the rain forest and at a point where the road split we stopped to pay a local villager a fee to enter their village area.  Soon we drove past the Banyan Castle Tree House, a tourist facility where the lodging was built in large Banyan trees.  They looked very sturdy with glass windows, wood panel sides and a shake like roof.  A wide wooden stair case with hand rails lead up to the balcony in front of the tree house.

At 17:00 we entered the gate for the Mount Yasur Volcano.  Phillip had to pay another fee and we picked up two young ladies as guides.  We bounced along a road with high grass on both sides and broke out in in an open area where several pickup trucks were parked.  Up the side of the volcano was a concrete path with posts about every ten feet.  At the start of the path was the famous mail box where one could mail a post card from the volcano.

We parked and I put on my rain jacket to shield against the wind and the lava ash and then I walked up the grade.  It was steep but without steps and with the posts it was not a difficult climb for me.  It took less than ten minutes to reach the viewing spot at the rim.  It was around 17:30 and the volcano was still erupting every 5 minutes but not throwing up a lot of fiery lava.

We were viewing at a rim looking down about 50 feet to the crater where the eruptions occurred.  There were about thirty spectators watching and photographing the eruptions.  A guide told me that in the dry season the red lava would be thrown higher than where we were standing but the wet season causes the sides to slide into the crater and diminish the lava eruptions.  The night before it had rained and the eruptions were mainly steam.

Finally as it got dark we could see fire and sparks of lava emitting in the eruptions.  The darker it got the more we could see.  At 18:20 the sun started to set and through the smoke and haze of the volcano it was a bright yellow sight along the mountain ridge giving the impression that the mountain was on fire.  It made for a couple of beautiful pictures.  The brightest fire in an eruption came at 18:30 and then it seemed to diminish so we started down the mountain at 18:45.  The girls assisted Bob and it took less than ten minutes to get back in the Land Cruiser.

Phillip then had to navigate across the black ash with very few tracks to follow.  He forded the river which was full of cows drinking the water and had to navigate around a couple of cows that refused to move.  I am glad he drove the route three times a week and knew where he was going because I was in the front seat and couldn’t see very many landmarks until we reached the road again.

When we reached the volcano entrance gate where we had picked up the girls it was dark.  I guess who ever had transported them to the entrance building had left and Phillip had to take them to their village.  He started back on the road we had taken to get to the entrance but then turned off towards the coast to a village where we met a man with a flashlight waiting for the girls.  After dropping the girls off he turned around and eventually got back on the road to the west coast.

It took two hours to reach the resort.  Our dinner was waiting and I found the Mahi-Mahi to be delicious.  When I returned to the bure I changed into my swim suit and headed to the pool.  I sleep in my swim suit so I didn’t want to get it wet and I slipped into the dark edge of the pool and rid myself of the volcanic ash.  The pool was a little cooler than the day before and felt very refreshing after the ash filled air we had experienced.

When I returned to the bure I washed out my underwear and found black ash in the sink.  I didn’t lower the mosquito netting and found a little more breeze cross my bed from the fan and the windows.  It had been a long day and I dropped off to sleep very quickly.

Saturday, January 25, 2014: Fly Tanna Island to Port Vila, Vanuatu

I had a restful night and woke just before 06:00 only to find that the hot water was not working so I had to take a cold shower.  Each bure had its own hot water heater fueled by a bottle of butane.  It had worked before we had gone to bed so it wasn’t a case of being turned off so maybe the butane ran out.

We had breakfast at 07:30 and then left on a tour of Tanna Highlights at 08:30.  Our driver/guide was Phillips’ cousin “Happy”.  He told us he was named Happy because he was born on New Year’s.
Happy drove us in a different Land Cruiser back towards the airport and turned off the road at a sign for the Giant Banyan Tree 4km.  The road was through very tall grass on each side and soon we turned off to the abandon Burton Field Airport.  It had been a grass strip with a dip which was often flooded during the rainy season so they constructed a paved runway close to the coast.  The old terminal building was still there with no windows and across an open field now used as a soccer field was the operations building next to an old weather tower.  Happy told us Phillip used to work for Air Vanuatu at the terminal and when the airport moved he was transferred to Port Vila.  While in Port Vila he had occasion to fly to Samoa where he met his wife.

After we left the airfield the road became narrower and we rode through the rain forest past a split in the road at the 2 km point until we reached a village with an open field full of men and boys playing soccer.  Happy stopped and a man ran over and jumped in the back of the Land Cruiser.  A short distance later we stopped at the car park for the World’s Largest Banyan Tree.  It was reportedly certified in the Guinness Book of Records.

Our guide led us down a path for ten minutes to the edge of the tree.  It was amazing there were aerial roots in both directions measuring a 100 meters (a football field) wide.  Paths weaved through the aerial roots and we spent about ten minutes following them until we reached a path of steps dug in the hillside that led back to the car park.  It took Bob a little longer to climb the steps.  He was exhausted when he reached the Land Cruiser.  I took a picture of the tree from the view point and the brochure claims it covers an area of 200 meters (656 ft).  Just try to picture one tree as big as the bowl of a football stadium, absolutely blowing!  The tree is still growing north and east and is believed to date back long before Captain Cook arrived on the island in 1774.

We drove back down to the village and dropped our guide off at the Tour Operations & Visitor Center.  And then we continued passing by other villages.  Happy told us some of the villages were “John Frum” villages.  They have a belief in a mythical messianic figure named John Frum was the basis for an indigenous cargo cult (a movement attempting to obtain industrial goods through magic) promising Melanesian deliverance. Today, John Frum is both a religion and a political party with a member in Parliament.  It was formed before World War II but reinforced when Americans would drop supplies by parachute to troops on the island during the war.

When we reached the coast highway Happy turned toward the town of Lenakel.  Happy gave us a tour of areas that Phillip had not taken us to such as the Province Capital Building, the Province Governor’s house, the USAID building, the Road Maintenance Shop where the road repair machines sat in rust.  He showed us the French and then the English Governors buildings.  He told us that prior to Independence the roads were well maintained but the country only repairs them during the dry season.  We passed through Isangel where we saw the open-air Supreme Court Building.

We rode back through the Lenakel town center and towards the resort and stopped at the Tanna Coffee Plantation and processing plant.  Since it was Saturday the plant was closed.  Past the plant Happy drove down to the beach and up the beach towards the resort.  It was rocky with outcroppings of lava rock.  We saw fisherman in the surf and we stopped to examine a row of native dugout fishing boats.  They were very narrow with outriggers.

Past the boats we came upon the Catholic mission, a beautiful building facing the ocean with a large lawn down to the beach.  Past the mission we turned away from the beach and rode past a church and an old coffee mill to the main road near the quarry.  This time there were even more goats than the day before grazing around the quarry.

Back at the resort we ate lunch and packed for our trip back to Port Vila.  The internet was still not connecting to the DNS Server so they gave me the Reception Desk password and refunded the Internet fee.  I was able to download my emails and answer the important ones before leaving for the airport at 15:30.
Before I left the resort I engaged Jean-Francois in a conversation about the Tanna Island government’s attitude toward tourists.  With the Giant Banyan Tree, Volcano, dive spots and the friendly villages they had a lot to offer but I didn’t get a feeling that they were encouraging more tourists.  He told me that there was a feeling that the locals want to limit tourists in order to maintain their culture.  We also discussed the wear and tear the roads must have on his vehicles and he agreed and said the roads are graded once a year during the dry season.  He didn’t sound optimistic that things would improve or change very much.

Our flight back to Port Vila was on a larger aircraft, an ATR-72.  I sat next to Mr. Sato Kilman, Minister of Trade Commerce and Tourism, Republic of Vanuatu.  I discussed with him the same issues I raised with Jean-Francois.  He told me the government wants to expand tourism to the island, build a wharf for cruise ships and improve the roads.  They have funded a project for road improvement that will start in July.  He is meeting resistance from the locals who are afraid that an increase in tourists will ruin their way of life.  He found that the John Frum cult is especially resistant to change.  He has been trying to increase the production of coffee on the island to gain more revenue but since the locals are basically happy growing their own food they have no incentive to need more revenue.  It was a very timely chance meeting for me.

It was only a 35 minute flight back to Port Vila.  Since it was a larger plane the wait for our bags took longer.  There was some large freight on the plane.  One box held labeled “Chow” held a rooster who’s head was sticking out an air hole.  When we got our bags we hired a cab to drive us to the hotel.  The cab was a new KIA only a week old.  The driver was very pleasant and we agreed to use him to take us to the airport the next day.

Our hotel room was identical to the one we had two days earlier except it was on a higher floor providing an even better view of the city and the bay.  We decided to not eat in the hotel and instead crossed the street to a Brewery Café which we had discount coupons for.  I ordered a sea food platter and they told me they were out of shrimp so they gave me extra fish.  It was a huge serving.  At a next table a customer had their cheese burger and it was as large as any I have ever seen.  My meal cost less than the hotel and I had a lot more than I would have at the hotel.

After our meal we walked back to the hotel to rearrange our luggage for the long flight home in the morning.

Sunday, January 26, 2014: Fly Port Vila, Vanuatu to LAX via Auckland, New Zealand

We ate breakfast at 07:00 and returned to our room to finish packing.  Our cab was scheduled to arrive at 09:00 to take us to the airport.  Check-in and security was quick and easy.  I was flying on Air New Zealand so I had a pass to the VIP Lounge.  It was not very large but it was air conditioned, had free Wi-Fi and cold drinks.

We walked to the plane and as we left the parking spot a heavy rain storm hit.  We were lucky that all of us were on board before it rained.  The plane still took off at noon landing in Auckland at 17:00 local time.  Our bags were checked through to LAX but I had to retrieve a bag of winter gear that I had stored after the expedition so I had to go through passport control and then get my bag, and receive a new boarding pass with the additional luggage tag number.

We only had a two hour connection.  I went up to the Air New Zealand Lounge hooked up my laptop and had a small lunch.  A thunder Storm hit the area and the lounge had two leaks.  I sat there watching the staff placing buckets under the leaking water.  At 18:00 I walked to the gate and found Bob reading a book.  The plane was there and the crew arrived when but they were stopped from going on the plane.  The gate agent explained that the plane had been delayed landing due to the thunder storm and it was still being cleaned and refueled.  The outside of the plane was painted as an advertisement for the Hobbit movie.  When the refueling completed the crew was allowed to board the aircraft and start their pre-flight preparations.

We boarded an hour late and departed Auckland an hour late at 20:15.  I sat in an inside aisle with an empty seat next to me.  I tried to set up my laptop and write in my journal but the people in front of me reclined their seats and I couldn’t use the laptop.  I had seen the movies that were offered on earlier flights so I watched a number of TV comedy shows until after dinner was complete and the treys picked up.  I was able to fall asleep for about three hours when I was awakened by the flight attendants running back and forth.  I had the flight map display on and saw that we were headed for Honolulu.  I got up to go to the rest room and found the one in my cabin to have a sign that it was out of order so I walked to the rear and while waiting for the toilet to be available found out from a flight attendant that we were being diverted for a medical emergency.  We were too heavy to land at Fiji or Samoa so we were heading for Hawaii.  I later learned that a woman had a miscarriage in the restroom that had the sign on the door.

We landed in Honolulu and were told to stay in our seats with our seat belts unfastened and all electrical equipment off as they were refueling the aircraft.  I tried to sleep on the four hour flight to LAX but didn’t sleep very much.  We landed at LAX at 13:30, three hours later than the scheduled time.  I quickly passed through passport control using the Fast Pass kiosk.  My bags were the first two off the carousel and I was embarrassed because so many people either missed their connecting flight or had a short time to get to their next flight and were waiting on their bag and here I was terminating and the first one to exit baggage claim.  My bubble burst when there was no one from the car service to greet me.  I walked out to the Prime Time Shuttle stand and asked the agent to call dispatch and find out the status of my driver.  I gave him my reservation number.  There appeared to be some confusion trying to locate my driver.  An hour and several calls later they finally decided to get met a dedicated Prime Time Van to drive me home at 15:15 an hour and forty five minutes after landing I left the airport.  My fee was refunded the next day.

The trip had been another adventure with few dull or routine moments.