Be My (own) Valentine

Posted February 14, 2019 by Abra Bennett
Categories: French Letters Visits America

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If you, like me, are spending your Valentine’s Day alone, let’s talk about that. This is my fourth time around this particular holiday-sun since Shel died, and I’m trying to make the best of it. Because deep down I don’t think the day is a cliché, a reflection of crass commercialism, a day of platitudes and saccharine sentiment. I absolutely am for the idea of a day that celebrates love, in all its forms.

Last night I had a good cry, anticipating the annual sorrow of the day. But today I’m making a good effort to be my own Valentine. Because, if I’m honest, it’s been that way for a long time.

Shel, for all that he loved me madly and preferred rom-coms to all other films, was not great about Valentine’s Day. I’d remind him, and make some sort of minor fuss over it, and he’d play along, but his heart was never really in it.

He’d have chosen sheltering from the Mediterranean sun under a tea towel, while cleaning salad greens, over dining at the nearby Michelin 1-star any day, and that goes for a romantic dinner on Valentine’s Day as well. In fact, this picture was taken not long after V-Day, which is also celebrated to a moderate extent in France, way back in 2009.

So you’d think that by now I’d have a plan, a sure-fire approach to tackling the day on my own. Only kinda sorta, to tell the truth.

I thought about sending myself flowers, but then I thought better of it. I did do a lot of other comforting things for myself, some of which are undoubtedly peculiar.

First, I turned the heat up one degree. I always leave my daytime heat at 64° in winter, to the despair of my chillier friends. Normally I wear a lot of fleece and shawls in the house, and am sometimes a bit cold, sometimes not. But when people come over I turn up the heat a bit, a degree or three, to be kind to them. I decided to give myself an extra degree today, just for me alone, which turns out to be sort of like giving myself a continuous hug.

I also cooked myself a nice dinner and served it to myself with a pleasing and memory-laden bottle of wine I brought home with me, after a visit to a tiny winery in France, a couple of years ago. Because if I don’t drink it today, then when? And who is going to appreciate it more than I?

As a gift to myself I finished my taxes in just one afternoon, a personal best for me, both in earliness of date completed and shortness of time spent filling out forms.

I went into my icy and snowy back yard with my camera and crunched loudly through the snow, looking for beauty.

I made sure to feel happy, instead of jealous, for my friends who still have their loves beside them. I snuggled a lot with Minou and Toby, who are conveniently spending almost 24/7 in the house to keep their dainty paws off the tundra formerly known as home.

And I made sure to be glad to be alive. Because that’s not a given, not to be taken for granted for the space of one breath. Which is, after all, the space that makes all the difference. That one breath, whether you draw it alone or in the arms of your best beloved, is your real link to this earth, to this life. Valentine’s Day is just the celebration, that breath is what makes it all possible. Keep breathing, keep loving, that’s my plan, and I hope that it’s yours.

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Aloha To You All

Posted December 20, 2018 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Cruising

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These beauties are Princess Ka’iulani and Princess Lili’uokalani, before the latter became queen of Hawaii. They lived in Honolulu’s Iolani Palace, the only royal residence in the United States, and Lili’uokalani was Hawaii’s last reigning monarch.

For our day in Honolulu I had planned on a tour to the Polynesian Cultural Center, which ended up being cancelled, to my deep disappointment. Getting there on my own seemed next to impossible, so I decided on a more mundane day.

I started out at Don Quijote’s, a fantastic grocery store that almost made me decide to move to Honolulu just so I could shop there. There I scored some Japanese and Hawaiian groceries to bring home and actually had to take a taxi back to the ship because my bags were so heavy.

Next I walked up toward the palace. This is a sign you wouldn’t see just everywhere.

The palace dates back to 1882, and exhibits the lovely rococo features of the era, decked out for Christmas, or Kalikimaka.

There’s this stunning hand-carved koa wood staircase,

a throne room, formal dining room,

and a display of dresses with impossibly small waists.

The palace also has a dark side. Queen Lili’uokalani was overthrown in 1893 by a group of American sugar plantation owners and businessmen, backed by U.S. Marines and the Navy, and she was imprisoned for eight months in a single room in the palace. Two years later the monarchy of the Kingdom of Hawaii was dissolved and in 1895 Hawaii was annexed by the United States. A lot of native Hawaiians are still very unhappy about this.

Not quite knowing what to do with myself, next I went down to the Ala Moana shopping center, where you can buy everything from impossibly beautiful white peach jellies

to a Tesla. Yes, right in among the other shops of the shopping center. The place was my idea of a total nightmare, with about 300 shops. It’s open air, but completely surrounded by traffic and parking structures, and it was packed with what must have been a third of the population of Honolulu. I did find a very nice poke bar there and had an early dinner, before walking through Ala Moana park on my way back to the ship.

The next day we were in Lahaina, where my tour had also been cancelled. This time I was determined to get out of town, and I managed to organize a small group of passengers to head out into the countryside. That’s Haleakala in the distance, wearing a necklace of clouds.

The whales were said to be around Maui, and although I kept my eyes on the ocean, this was all I saw of them.

Turtles, though, turtles were there. Our guide said that some of these guys are over 100 years old. They paid no attention to us whatsoever, as befitted their advanced age.

The shore break was really rough, and there were shark warning signs, but that didn’t stop the surfers. I couldn’t help but notice the little memorial park on a rocky outcropping at this beach, where there were about a dozen crosses in memory of surfers who lost their lives here.

Next we headed for Twin Falls, which was kind of an island Eden. The ground was covered with a layer of treacherous roots, and it wasn’t at all clear how they would ever extricate you if you were so unlucky as to break you ankle in them.

I would have accidentally-on-purpose fallen into this gorgeous pool, if it hadn’t been for my fear that the guide wouldn’t let me back in the van all sodden and soggy. I have to say that I’ve had more pictures taken of me in the past three months than in the past 10 years put together. My fellow passengers are obsessive about insisting that every moment be captured.

On the grounds by the waterfalls there are some truly impressive stands of giant bamboo, and even a few out-of-focus coffee berries.

After a visit to the Surfing Goat Dairy Farm and some shopping along the picturesque main drag of Lahaina, I had a sunset dinner with some picturesque friends.

That’s Althea, Virginia and her husband Jim, and Joyce. In truth the setting at the restaurant was so lovely that I made them all pose for me, but I’m happy to have these mementos of our last meal in our last port of the trip.

We’ll be home tomorrow, after a journey of over 24,000 nautical miles, which is more than 27,600 plain old miles. We’ve visited 14 countries, and 38 ports over the past three months. I’ll write another post about life on board, but this is really the end of the journey. In the beginning it seemed like it would last forever, and yet, here we are. Time is funny that way.

Only One Samoa

Posted December 18, 2018 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Cruising

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We were supposed to visit Samoa, on December 8, and then the next day, American Samoa, also on December 8. They are one people historically, sharing a culture, and a language. The vagaries of the International Dateline mean that Samoans, traveling from one country to the other, have to ask “are you arriving on your December 8, or our December 8?”

However, Samoa is an independent nation, whereas American Samoa is a U.S. territory.

It’s a complicated story, but when we arrived in Apia, Samoa, I was hoping to learn all about it. Sadly, after we docked and the first 50 people went ashore, the ocean swell grew so strong that three lines holding us to the dock were snapped. even though we had the engines running to keep us in place. The captain quickly moved us out into the bay before either the ship or the dock could be damaged, and the crew set about finding and collecting the passengers that were already on shore. Many were gathered for an excursion, so they were easily retrieved, but the others had some interesting experiences. The local authorities put out a call to taxi drivers to find the foreigners, but several passengers thought they were being scammed when a stranger in a taxi pulled up and said “Hurry, your ship is leaving. $5 and I will take you there.” Eventually everyone understood the situation, got back on board, and we set sail for American Samoa without visiting Apia, which I regretted.

There’s not a lot for a day-tripping tourist to do in Pago Pago (pronounced Pango Pango), American Samoa, so I went on a colorful bus tour of the island. The windows are down when you need cooling and up when it rains.

The bus was decorated for Christmas.

Our guide was trying to train three new workers for the business, her cousin, and two high school girls. They were all delightful, but frankly I don’t think any of them has much of a future as a tour guide. Actually, the girls were thinking about a career in the military after graduation. American Samoa has poor employment prospects, and the highest military enlistment rate of any U.S. state or territory.

Our tour began with an uphill drive to the site of Pago Pago’s cable car, once the longest aerial tramway in the world. It’s been rusting away since a Navy plane hit the cables in 1980 and crashed, killing six people.

We passed the Department of Education’s offices,

the town firehouse, about which our guide said “somehow they can never seem to put out any fires,”

several tuna canning factories, where the workers were on break, and visited the museum.

There we saw the recently discovered jaw of a baby sperm whale,

and a huge and beautiful tapa, which is a traditional type of painting on bark (docent for scale).

All of the interpretive signage was in two languages. So if you’ve ever wondered what the Samoan language looks like, here you go.

We crept along at a gear-grinding snail’s pace, ever upward through the rain forest, and got a little lesson in rain forest ecology.

From the mountain top we were able to look down over the harbor and even see our ship in the distance. When people asked how the tour had been my answer was invariably “green.” It’s one of the greenest and most fertile lands I’ve ever seen.

We also visited a tiny village in a far corner of the island, which had some very pretty houses,

and a small school. Teachers there are mainly volunteers, often on religious missions.

Every family has a fale Samoa, which can hold many people and is used for all kinds of ceremonies and gatherings.

Sometimes they are also municipal gathering places. All in all it was a low-key visit to what felt like a low-key country. But everyone has land, and thus a place to build a home and plant a garden. I would have liked more time to understand the place, but overall my impression is that it’s a pleasant and peaceful island. I just wish that the kids had better alternatives to enlistment.

Fiji, For The Food!

Posted December 15, 2018 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Cruising

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In Nadi (pronounced Nandi), Fiji, I decided to take a market tour and cooking class with the Flavours of Fiji Cooking School. Once again I was the only person to take the tour. I don’t know how I keep getting so lucky, although it’s bad luck for the tour operators to have just one guest. Anyway, I had a blast all by myself with Ajay, Lia, and Arti.

We started out in the vast kava section of the market. Lia and a kava vendor tut-tutted over the way I’d had it prepared in Vanuatu, so primitive. Here they dry the root and reduce it to a fine powder before mixing it with water.

Next we saw this pretty dried fish,

although the fresh fish were even prettier.

Freshwater clams were sold by the heap. Really, that’s the unit of measure, the heap.

There were bitter gourds and mangoes galore,

soursop,

rose apples,

beans that looked like scarlet runners,

and mountains of peppers. About 40% of Fijians are of Indian descent, and their culture of spicy food is very much a part of Fijian cuisine.

I was fascinated by the way these taro roots are sold, with stems attached. Lia told me that you can plant the stems in the ground, along with a bit of the root, and get new taro. Evidently it works just like pineapple, and is a very efficient form of reproduction.

I was also fascinated by the beauty of these vendors, an auntie and her niece.

After the market we went to the cooking school, which is really lovely, spotlessly clean, and well-decorated.

There’s a lot of coconut in Fijian cooking, and Lia gave me a lesson in how to grate fresh coconut, starting from the outer edge.

I didn’t do very well, but I blame it on the fact that she made me sit sidesaddle to grate, like a lady, instead of straddling the contraption like the men do.

We were to cook six dishes together, three native Fijian, and three Indo-Fijian, and all the mise en place was already prepped. We each cook our own portions, across the table from each other. I told them I was an accomplished cook, and that I once had a personal chef business. Still, hilariously to me, all of the instructions were of this order:”Turn on your burner to low, take a pan, put in the oil, set the lid of the pan on the right side of the burner, and take a spoon and set it on the dish to the left of the pan.” I mentioned a couple of times that they really didn’t need to go into so much detail for me, but sometimes they have up to 26 people in a class, and they say that many of them can’t cook at all, so they have developed the scripts accordingly. I finally managed to stop resisting, laugh, and comply.

The food was fabulous. With Lia I cooked rourou, a taro leaf dish that was meltingly delicious. You can make it with spinach, but the young taro leaves are special. We also made mackerel in coconut cream, and cassava in coconut cream for dessert. Lia added pieces of steamed taro and cassava to our plates, and we sat down to a scrumptious lunch. It was only toward the end of the meal that I realized that I was going to cook a whole ‘nother lunch with Arti. And eat it, presumably.

Arti and I made a pumpkin curry that is going to be a standard on my table, a chicken and potato curry, and roti. I’ve tried my hand at roti before, to no good effect, but these were perfect. And then we did our best to eat all this, although I admit that, even though it was all very good, I couldn’t really do it justice.

This appeared on the table, but a picture was all I could manage. Of course I vowed never to look at food again, after all that, but the next morning we arrived in Suva, Fiji, and because there was an off-again on-again deluge I ducked into a couple of stores.

These folks seemed unperturbed by the weather and sat outside, hoping to sell their mangoes. Honestly, I have never seen so many mangoes in my life as I did in Fiji.

I almost brought home some roti flour, but the weight of my suitcase made me think better of it.

The flavors of these snacks were also very enticing, but I staunchly resisted.

I resisted these stunning dresses too, although I desperately wanted one. But I’d have to move to Fiji to have the right place to wear one, and I just don’t see that happening.

If the weather had cooperated there are so many more places I could have visited, but all in all, it was a great time. And if you’re ever in Nadi, don’t hesitate to sign up for a cooking class. Just be sure to follow their pre-class instructions to “bring your appetite!”

Paradise Found

Posted December 14, 2018 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Cruising

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This is Brian, who took me in a tiny boat out to Paradise, although most people would call his island Aneityum, Vanuatu.

Our ship had dropped anchor near a place we call Mystery Island, which is uninhabited because, according to legend, it’s haunted.   

For some unknown reason I was the only person to sign up for Brian’s tour, so I got to have him, his family compound, and indeed his village, all to myself. I’ve never been to any place like it. If you want a lesson in the local patois just read this sign out loud. It says, approximately, “Please don’t make a short cut on the lawn, please and thank you.”

We were met by Susi, who I think was all dressed up for company, although possibly she looks this lovely every day. She had a long and specially twisty leaf for me to wear behind my left ear, because I’m not married. I kept it on all day, draped down to my collarbone, and got lots of smiles, and a few stares and giggles. It signifies welcome, and peace. Since these people were once cannibals, back in the day, I think it also means “wear this and no one will eat you,” but that might be a fanciful interpretation. That’s her doorbell on the post on the right, just rap the stick on the bamboo to announce yourself before entering.

I had a hard time figuring out exactly who Susi was, since Brian told me she was his Mom, and also that she was his Mom’s sister. Finally I determined that all of his mother’s sisters were his Mom, and all of his father’s brothers were his Dad. Because that’s how it is in his village of about 300 people, where everyone is family.

Our first visit was to the family kitchen. There’s no electricity in this village, but there is a tap outside with water they pipe directly from a river that flows down from the mountains. I felt that the kitchen might pose a challenge to my cooking skills, even though I’ve boasted that I can cook anywhere.

The sink looked especially difficult.

I learned that in Vanuatu the coconut is called “the tree of life,” because they use every part of it in their daily lives. Everything you see here is woven or made from various parts of the coconut, a broom, baskets, kids’ toys, sleeping and sitting mats, cups for serving kava. Even the green leaf has special significance. Normally you would offer it to guests with food on it, but if it’s placed, empty, in front of the door of your hut, it means that you are banished and need to move out of the village immediately.

These are three outhouses, the middle one built for guests like me. I didn’t venture in, but it was visibly fancier than the other two from the outside.

Here Susi’s husband (I think, it was never exactly clear to me) husks me a coconut in the traditional way, with a very sharp stick dug into the ground. He does this so that I may have a refreshing drink, so welcome on a hot equatorial day.

They also prepare me a little snack of freshly grated coconut, pineapple, and banana. All of which seemed incomparably sweet and delicious, in this magical environment.

Normally I escape as fast as I can from this kind of photo op, but before I knew what was happening they had adorned me with a garland and a headband and pulled me into this frame. It would have been horribly rude to protest, so I submitted, and although it’s not a flattering photo of me, I’m sure I’ll never have another even remotely like it.

Brian took me back to Mystery Island, where a big, travelling market had been set up for the passengers. There was no dock there, and his boat was really small, so I had to step right into the water to get in and out. It’s amazing how long it takes for salt water to dry out of  your shoes. And after my adventure a Vanuatu beer

and a local lunch of grilled tuna, plantain, cassava, salad, pineapple, and rice with green garlic seemed in order.

I had heard that there would be a kava ceremony, and really wanted to participate. When I got to the booth with the kava the guy told me that I was apparently the only passenger who wanted to try it. So he prepared it just for me. I think other passengers had been deterred by the ship’s guide’s description that it “tasted like dishwater.” Another passenger told me that he’d tried it once and it tasted “like bong water.”

I was interested in the effects, more than the taste, so I asked the guy to make some for me. He looked at the leaf draped over my ear and said “Oh, I see you have a ‘peace.’ I will be happy to prepare some for you.” He took fresh kava root, chopped it up,

and ground it up in a meat grinder. He soaked it in water, strained it, and served me a large coconut shell full of a muddy-looking drink. He told me that kava makes your lips and tongue numb, so it’s best to just chug it right down, to minimize that effect. I took a tiny sip, just to see what I was getting into, before really drinking it.

I didn’t think it tasted bad at all, kind of bitter, but I like bitter. Mostly herbal, and I like that too. So I gladly emptied the shell and waited for something to happen.

I sat on a bench by the beach and thought about my day. I felt very relaxed, but I had been all day long. I thought about how everyone I had met seemed very calm too. I couldn’t tell if all that tranquility was due to the fact that kava is ubiquitous, or because of the stunning natural beauty, or because a village like the one I had visited can still exist in this modern world. Or something else.

When I went back to the ship I kept that long leaf draped over my ear all evening. My Indonesian dining stewards thought it was hilarious, but the Filipino folks on board recognized the leaf, although no one knew its name in English. It was fragrant when crushed, and I invited a lot of people to sniff it, just next to my hair.

So I don’t know whether it was the sleepy village, or the shell full of kava, or the fragrant leaf with its promise of peace, or all three, but I had an incredibly relaxed day, and a very sweet sleep. Maybe that’s the mystery of Mystery Island.

Of Lifou And Vanilla

Posted December 5, 2018 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Cruising

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Still in New Caledonia, we sailed to the island of Lifou. There I was determined to discover why vanilla has become so incredibly expensive. I got the best possible education by visiting the Vanilla House.

At the Vanilla House they have a demonstration garden, since the plantation itself is deep in the jungle. Here our guide explains to us how vanilla orchids are planted and cared for, and how the vanilla beans are harvested and processed.

In an amazing case of “what could Mother Nature possibly have been thinking???” each vanilla flower must be hand-pollinated in order to bear its fruit, which is the vanilla bean. There are no other pollinators here for this type of orchid, so humans do all the work. And an incredible amount of work is involved. Unimaginable, nearly.

Once mature, each green vanilla pod is hand-harvested. Then they are sorted by size, all by hand, and set in the sun to dry for two months.

Next they are shade-dried for an additional two to four months, before being sorted again by hand to ensure uniform size post-shrinkage.

The beans are then aged for six months or more, until they are the glossy black beans we are accustomed to seeing. Shockingly, after all that time and effort, the growers are only paid about $35 dollars per kilo for top quality beans. Since I normally pay exactly that amount for eight ounces of vanilla extract I had expected that they’d earn more.

The owner of the Vanilla House shows us a few animals they keep around the place, like this python,

and this coconut crab, which is really huge. The grounds are lovely,

showcasing fruits, shells, and coral from the island.

On the way back to the ship we see some traditional houses.

This one is the business of a beach-side hair-braider, and her decorations show off her braiding skills.

It’s yet another island of surreal beauty and contrasts. In the van on our tour I got to sit up front with the driver, who chattered away in French with me the entire way. She’s educated, a former teacher, and discusses French politics and the recent New Caledonian independence referendum with me. On the other hand, her husband is the chief of their tribe, and she tells me that they are in the middle of gathering their required 1000 fronds for the every five years’ re-thatching of the “great chief’s” house. 

When I tell her that requiring 1000 fronds sounds kind of feudal, she says “Oh yes, we are feudal here. But we are modern too. Everyone on Lifou has electricity and running water.” It’s a study in differences. And I’ll never complain about the price of vanilla again.

The France Of The South

Posted December 3, 2018 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Cruising

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I don’t know about you, but this isn’t exactly how I picture France. Possibly you’re thinking that I meant to write “the south of France” instead of “the France of the south.” But no, mais non, and pas du tout. The confusion is real, but it’s not due to a typing error.

If you walked into a grocery store and saw this

wouldn’t you think you were in France? Setting aside the fact that it’s awfully hot to be eating foie gras, and that the carbon footprint of shipping all that food to the South Pacific from mainland France is unconscionable, it’s pretty convincing. Well, that Pandoro might be a bit idiosyncratic, because it’s technically Italian, but it’s exactly what we used to buy in France at Christmas time. Actually, we bought all that stuff in our small town in France. And the whole store is entirely full of foods grown, canned, packaged, and processed in Europe.

The thing is, you are, and then again you kind of aren’t, in France here. People speak French, and are French citizens, hold French passports, but step outside the grocery store and you might find yourself here.

at the Tjibaou Cultural Centre, on Nouméa, the capital of New Caledonia, or as it’s properly called, Nouvelle-Calédonie. It was my first experience of being in the non-European part of France, and it was quite a culture shock.

Not the least of which was caused by learning that even though I could see pastis, my favorite hot weather drink and one I was hoping to be able to imbibe on my ship’s balcony,  I couldn’t buy any. The entire alcohol section was closed. That’s because it’s not legal to sell alcohol after noon on weekend days, or on Wednesday afternoons, for some unfathomable reason.

And that, my friends, is how I knew that I was really and truly not in the France to which I have become happily accustomed.