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.

Way Down Under

Posted December 1, 2018 by Abra Bennett
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I didn’t get a lot done in Sydney. It’s really not a two-day visit place, so when you go, I suggest that you try to manage a couple of weeks there. And if you’re planning to get there by ship, pick a big one (although I never thought I’d say that).

Because we’re a relatively small ship

and could fit under the famously so-called “hanger” bridge, we paid a penalty for our lack of stature by having to dock way out in the boonies, far from town, whereas the big guys tie up right in the middle of it all. That increased considerably the hassle factor of getting around town. 

The first morning I went on a walking tour of the “Rocks” district, which is the site of the original settlements. This is the view from the highest natural point in Sydney, which is not particularly high, but is nonetheless pleasingly panoramic.

The green dome on the right is the weather observatory. The yellow ball near the center has a cool history. Although the original ball itself was very recently replaced, a yellow ball in that spot has told the time since 1858. At 1:00 every day the yellow ball, known as the Time Ball, is dropped so that all ships, or indeed anyone who can see the ball, can synchronize their time-telling devices.

Australia is a young country and Sydney is a young town, dating back only to 1788. Its development is commemorated by this mural.

Sydney takes its history seriously, and the entire Rocks district is the object of historical preservation.

One of the coolest things we saw was how an entire youth hostel had been built from the second floor up, leaving the whole ground floor open as a sort of living museum of early archaeology.

Some of the original old houses have been preserved, 

while others can be viewed from inside the foundations.

I don’t want you to think that I’m obsessed with toilets, but after some of the ones I saw in China, this one looks pretty nice.

I was also interested in a different sort of excavation, that of opals. As we traveled through Australia I was really hoping to find an opal to bring home, not a certain thing, since they are shockingly expensive, even here.

Although I fell in love with these beauties, which cost in the tens of thousands of dollars, I did eventually find a modest one to wear, thus ending my quest.

Eating in Sydney was funny. This guy didn’t hesitate to settle on my table looking for crumbs at one meal,

and at another a tardy busboy had to clear up after the depredations of these gulls.

And weirdly, I had a bowl of laksa here that was even better than what I had in Singapore. There’s a lot of Asian influence in the Sydney food scene.

I ended up walking all over downtown Sydney, and a couple of interesting things I noted in passing: the fluidity of time,

the beauty of street art and appreciation of birds,

and the sensibleness of the rental bikes coming equipped with helmets.

Of course there was a darker side. On the morning when there happened to be a month’s worth of rainfall deluging the city in a few-hour period, causing flooding in the streets and a general disappearance of taxis, I had an appointment at the American Consulate. Let me tell you, if you are planning a visit there, arrive at least half an hour early. The security there was even more intimidating than when I went to the embassy in Beijing.

You have to take a dedicated elevator to a floor that’s somewhere between a reception area and a holding cell. You are divested of your belt, watch, phone, and camera – I was even required to remove the battery from my camera before abandoning it. You are told to wait, and in what seat to wait. Then you are escorted to another floor, in a dedicated elevator, by a guard. On the return, you descend from that high floor so fast that your ears pop. One paragraph to describe, 30 minutes to execute it all. You can be sure that you are safe in that little part of Sydney.

However, some of us who had procured tickets months ago did have the privilege of attending a concert here, in the concert hall of the fabulous Opera House. Alas, we were a little too early for the opera season, but we did get to hear Daniel Barenboim conduct the Berlin Staatskapelle. One of the world’s best conductors, one of the world’s best orchestras, one of the world’s most beautiful music venues. Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony and Beethoven’s Eroïca – two familiar classics that, while not edgy or challenging, received their due with this virtuoso performance. We were thrilled to be there.

And now it’s time to head north, beginning the long voyage homeward. First stop, New Caledonia, la Nouvelle-Calédonie. I’m looking forward to being back in France.

Mmmmm Mooloolaba

Posted November 30, 2018 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Cruising

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Mooloolaba (accent on the second syllable) is all about the beach. It’s 100% beachy, with dozens, nay hundreds, of shops selling t shirts, flip flops, swim suits, gauzy cover-ups, hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen. Here’s where the Australian slogan “slip, slop, slap” really comes to life: slip on a shirt, slop on some sunscreen, slap on a hat. The government makes a point of it, given that Australia has the dubious distinction of being the skin cancer capital of the world. The smell of coconut oil sun creams wafted everywhere.

 I walked down the Esplanade to this rocky outcropping, which reminded me of when I lived in California. It smelled reassuringly like home, because here’s a thing I never realized before. What I have always thought of as the smell of the sea, that briny, pungent fragrance, is really the smell of the shore. Out in the middle of the ocean there’s no smell at all, the air is just clean. It’s the messy convergence of sea and shore, the life and death of seashore inhabitants both animal and vegetable, that creates the smell I love, and I was very glad to find it here.

You can see our ship anchored out there. We had to tender in to shore in our lifeboats, because Mooloolaba doesn’t have a dock suitable for such a large ship.

Once off the beach, this place is a tropical paradise of flowers,

and street after street of vacation homes for sale and for rent.

Mooloolaba is also famous, at least locally, for its prawns, and I walked an extra mile to try them at their best.

The waiter seemed a bit taken aback when I announced that I wanted just prawns, prawns alone, cooked all the different ways they served them. The kitchen made me a plate of all the prawns and nothing but the prawns, although they couldn’t resist giving me four dipping sauces as well. It was pretty much prawn heaven, and I tasted my way through it. The winner? Crumbed prawns with lime and ginger sauce gets my wholehearted vote.

Another thing that gets my vote is the Australian pharmacy system. If you have aches and pains, you probably know Voltaren gel. If you live in the U.S. you have to have a prescription to use it. But I first discovered it in France, where it’s sold over the counter, just as it is in Australia, where my guess is that big pharma does not hold sway.

Speaking of sway, I got to watch as they put the tenders back up onto the ship, something I’d never seen before. The tender pilot has to position the boat exactly under the two hooks that will winch it up,

until it reaches its normal resting place some 40 feet above the water. I was glad not to be in the boat with the crew as they rode it up, although they probably think it’s fun, having done it safely so many times.

As we sailed away the sky seemed perfect for seeing the elusive green flash, which I’ve been stalking most every sunset during this voyage.

But alas, it was yet another flash-less sky, beautiful though it was. And now, time to sail into somewhat cooler waters, heading down south to big-city Sydney.

An Australian Thanksgiving

Posted November 29, 2018 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Cruising

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The ship’s stop was Cairns, but I had Kuranda on my mind. It’s a tiny town about 1000 ft. above sea level, that you can reach via an antique train, then depart via a horrifyingly high cable car. Just the way to spend a tropical Thanksgiving, I thought. I booked a ticket for the trip, and thought that, if nothing more, it would be a good way to take my mind off being away from the family at Thanksgiving.

Then, the night before, I had a look at Facebook and got into this amazing conversation with a couple of old friends, Della and Greg, whom I hadn’t seen in about five years. They had posted a picture of themselves in an album labeled “Australia.” A flurry of messages ensued.

A: Hey, are you guys in Australia??? I am too!!!
D&G: Yeah, we’re in Cairns.
A: No way, I’m going to be in Cairns tomorrow!
D&G: We’re planning to go up to Kuranda tomorrow, though.
A: I am going to Kuranda tomorrow too!

And thus was hatched one of the most far-fetched and wholly unexpected Thanksgiving plans I have ever made. We agreed to meet up in Kuranda, and so we did. But first,

I took the antique train up there. This railway is 23 miles long, has over two kilometers of tunnels that were dug out by hand, over two kilometers of bridges, has been in service since 1891, and traverses an incredibly lush rain forest. 

32 men died building this railway, much of it pickaxed out of sheer rock faces.

This huge boulder remains as a monument to those workers.

Arriving in Kuranda I was met by Della and Greg, who had made the upward journey by cable car, since the train was sold out. After a long series of hugs and greetings, most of which were of the “Can you actually believe that we are all accidentally celebrating Thanksgiving together in a tiny town in Australia?” sort, we set off to explore the town.

Of course we went shopping, although none of us bought anything except the macadamia nuts I got to take back to the ship. Greg insisted on taking this picture, and even I resisted the kitschy opportunity, I’m glad he did.

It was a super-hot day, and we were all thrilled to find this shady terrace restaurant where we could have lunch over a bottle of an unremarkable but refreshingly chilled sauvignon-blanc semillon blend. And then, after a bit more sauntering through town, came the time I had been dreading.

I’m not sure whether I’ve ever mentioned it here, but heights are not my favorite thing. A cable car ride high above a rain forest is not an activity I would normally choose to do, but I had heard that it was a spectacular trip. So I swallowed my totally irrational terror and hopped aboard.

Della’s not a fan of heights either, but she was braver, having come up that way earlier in the day.

It really was a beautiful ride, and although the river below looked inviting, it was almost certainly full of fresh-water crocodiles.

I kept taking pictures, trying to show how high up we were. This is the best I could do, since my camera just refused to look through the forest canopy all the way to the ground. See that small dark blob, suspended toward the center from 2:00? That’s the shadow of our gondola, high above the tree canopy. We were a long way up, and we had a couple of nervous conversations about how one might be rescued, were one so unlucky as to suddenly be stranded up there. It really didn’t bear thinking about, since at least two of us would undoubtedly have died of fright before any rescue could be accomplished.

Arriving back in Cairns we recovered from our self-inflicted ordeal with more catching-up conversation, accompanied by quite a lot more more chilled white wine and an Indian restaurant dinner. There was no turkey, and we resisted the urge to try the crocodile curry.

All in all, I’d call it one of my most unusual Thanksgivings ever. Not least because I normally think of Thanksgiving as a cool-weather, northern-hemisphere, red-wine holiday. Also, I never did really see Cairns.

On Top Of Australia

Posted November 29, 2018 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Cruising

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From Komodo Island we sailed down to the Top End of Australia. It was a bit of a shock to be back in an English-speaking land, especially since the weather was just as equatorial as what we’d experienced in Indonesia, and they still drive on the left. 

Our first Australian port was sleepy little Darwin, where the community chorale was out in force to serenade us. Speaking as a former chorale singer, I was very pleasantly surprised by their excellent performance.

Darwin is known for being the epicenter of Australia’s aboriginal culture. I hate to be crass and put shopping first,  but in truth I was looking forward to finding some pretty bits to bring home with me. And then, I wanted to go to the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, and see the exhibit of aboriginal art. I took the city bus to get there, which surprised me by being free for seniors. 

The spider exhibit wasn’t open yet, but I’m sure that it would have been suitably scary, since there are apparently over 500 species of spiders in Australia, many or even most of them poisonous, depending on who you believe.

I did wander, jaw dropped, through several rooms of amazing stuffed mammals, reptiles, birds, and fish, all completely foreign to me. That’s when the reality of being in the southern hemisphere struck me: in Australia you’re definitely not in Kansas anymore and they’ve got the wildlife to prove it. Just one example is this grouper, which weighed over 500 pounds when it was caught.

The art there was wonderful. And the museum is free, although it accepts donations. It’s quite a treasure and I feel lucky to have been able to visit there.

When in Australia, eat barramundi and drink sauvignon blanc. And so I did. The crunchy fried capers really made this dish.

Australians are very inventive about things to do in the water. These folks were having a blast, giggling and screaming as their giant water toy tossed and turned them.

And that was Darwin, a tiny visit, but a very rewarding one. And now, on to Cairns, which, for your edification and mystification, is pronounced Cans. 

Of Dragons And Beggars

Posted November 25, 2018 by Abra Bennett
Categories: Cruising

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You only go to Komodo Island for one reason: to see the dragons. This guy may look like he’s smiling, but if he bites you there’s a good chance you won’t survive, thanks to the creature’s serrated teeth and some nasty venom conveyed by their bite.

The dragons are found on only a few Indonesian islands, and Komodo Island is the only one that’s a national park, and allows visitors in an organized way. It’s very remote.

See that little dock in the distance? That’s the cruise terminal, such as it is. Obviously a huge ship can’t get in there, so we drop a bunch of small tenders

and bustle ashore.

And speaking of small boats, as soon as we get near the island we are greeted by these kids in boats. At first I think it’s charming. They’re calling out to us continuously, and I imagine they’re welcoming us. But finally I can decipher what they’re saying, over and over, possibly 20-30 times a minute. “Papa, money. Papa, money. Papa, Mom, money please. Ok?” 

I see a couple of items tossed to them, until the captain says it’s not allowed. But why are they begging?

We take a very hot walk, accompanied by park rangers, to see the dragons. They water this spot, making a mud hole where the dragons like to congregate, so that visitors can see them. They make much of keeping us on the path, saying that dragons and even cobras can be anywhere along our trail. But in fact the only place we see the dragons is the spot where they take us.

The rangers and guides stand around vigilantly, holding forked sticks to fend off any marauding dragons.

But in fact the dragons show little to no interest in us.

As we walk back to the ship we come to an area of gift shops, selling an assortment of tacky stuff that’s of no interest to me. However, walking through there almost requires a forked stick to fend off the children.

I didn’t take any pictures of them, because it sickened me. Kids that looked like they ranged in age from four to twelve were begging everywhere. Dozens and dozens of them. A few had some little items to sell, but most just flat out begged, with the most universally pathetic expressions on their faces, coming right up to grab our sleeves. “Papa, money. Mom, money.” I found it horrible. Who taught them to do this, in such a remote place? Why are they asking in English? Do they even have a place to spend money?

And what will happen when they get older? Have we created a whole generation that will grow up to be beggars? If you look around online you’ll see lots of comments about how this is a “must see, once in a lifetime experience.” I’m not so sure about that. I’d rather see the big lizards on YouTube than see a bunch of kids learning to beg as soon as they learn to walk.

I was happy to leave, and I wouldn’t go back. I don’t know what the local culture was before the cruise ships started calling there, but I’m pretty sure we’ve ruined it forever.