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Sunday, October 31, 2010


After nine weeks of travelling, the adventure in the Solomons has finally begun. I left France, sad to see my father leave and a little scared about the next 72 hours ahead of me.  The flight to Dubai was elongated by two hours due to fog, leaving little time to scurry through duty free.

The trip to Australia was long and filled with turbulence fun.  The bathrooms were filled with people getting violently ill due to the shaking.  Now, I’m not a fan of turbulence but after being on the boat and on trains and having been, as my mother put it, “shakin like a bag of ze walnutz”, I was pretty immune. 

It’s always interesting who you meet on planes and I am one of those annoying people who like to talk, even briefly, with the people sitting next to me.  I figure, if you are going to share a cramped space for 14 hours, you should at least know the names of people around you. I sit next to a girl from York traveling to work on a cruise ship in Brisbane.  She is an interesting lady, working on the sound and lighting for the ship and we got on well.

I always pre-order the vegan meal on planes.  But I’m not vegan; I just got sick on a beef ravioli dish on a 14 hour flight from Sydney to Johannesburg ages ago. It was awful.  So I made up my mind to lessen my chances of getting meat based food poisoning again (yes, I know you can still get sick on veggies.)  The great thing about ordering a vegan meal is that it’s always very fresh, well made and you get it about a half an hour before everyone else does.

By the time I got to Brisbane, I was pretty wiped out; not entirely prepared for the next leg ahead of me.  I had heard bad things about Solomon Airlines (the Lonely Planet Guide called said it was in competition for being the most unreliable airline on the planet).  But I found this to not be the case at all.  The staff was very polite and the plane was clean.  It was another bumpy flight but by that time, turbulence just put me to sleep. 
The Henderson Airport is based on the old military base which was the basis for the Guadalcanal battles in World War 2.  I won’t get into yet (because there is so much other stuff to talk about right now, I leave that for a “Sara is bored and has nothing else to talk about” blog) but the World War 2 stuff is pretty fascinating.
As we fly into Honiara, I get a pretty good view of Guadalcanal.  It’s hilly and lush; jungle everywhere below lined with white sandy beaches.  Paradise.

The airport, again, was clean and tidy and immigration/customs were a breeze.  I know I was worried about the weight of my bag but because I checked it through Charles de Gaule, they didn’t weigh it or charge me extra!  Yay!  I didn’t have to wear all the extra panties after all (I did wear jeans under my dress for the duration of the flight just in case though).

I met a girl on the plane, Scarlett*.  She is friendly and lively; originally from the Philippines but living in Australia now (except when she works in the Solomons).  We click instantly and exchange email addresses, promising to catch up.

I get out of customs to four people waiting for me.  Three people from my host organisation present me a beautiful lei, welcoming me to the islands.

I’m exhausted, and they can tell, so they take me to the office quickly, give me a quick tour of everything and drop me off to my new home for a year.

When I arrive, it’s not at all what I was expecting.  I had really wanted a place where I could grow a little garden and maybe adopt a cat (sorry Mr. Dot Dot, you will always be the best cat in the world, but I have to move on too).  Instead, I got a very clean and tidy studio with a nice kitchen and a lovely warm shower. 

I put my suitcase down, took off my clothes, put the sheet over me and drifted immediately off to sleep.
When I woke up at 2 a.m., I couldn’t go back to sleep.  I looked around me, confused and not entirely sure I was ready for this experience.  I was frustrated that things hadn’t turned out as planned; I had planned the little garden in my head.  I had planned to bake, to decorate, to have a cat, to set down roots for awhile (something I’m not terribly good at but I’d like to try more of).  I thought I’d have a flatmate but instead I was living alone.  I started getting very nervous and wondering if I’d made the right decision all together.  I was looking at months of being alone, isolated and sad.

I flipped through the little introduction packet to the apartments, which are in Sanalae.  Sanalae means “for the time being”.  I can’t help but smile; the universe suddenly had just winked back at me. 

Then I started looking at the place from a totally different perspective.  It was a simple; I had someone to clean everyday so I didn’t have to worry about getting cockroaches or ants (as long as I clean up and store stuff in the small fridge).  I don’t have to worry about buying bedding, towels, dishes, cooking utensils; everything was provided.  I never had to worry about fixing my own toilet (which, I am awesome at due to some very fun times in Namibia..ah the ballcock…) or buying a light bulb.  Everything is easy; I guess I was expecting to have to work a little more.  I can’t believe I was disappointed about having to work less! 

My host organisation has kindly provided me with a driver, Lucas* for the weekend to take me around and after a delayed start, we head off to the central market.  The market is sprawling; under the huge covered structure are tables filled with fresh vegetable and tropical fruit, some of which I have never seen.  The prices are cheap so you don’t bargain in the Solomons. 

Tidy little piles or heaps of tomatoes, capsicum, peanuts, chillis, limes, mangos, bananas (of which there are over 30 kinds) and other items litter the tables with small signs that say “five dollars”.  At the front near the dock is the fish market, which I stay away from for now because I don’t yet know if I can handle gutting a fish in my apartment yet.  Bake good are also for sale, as are bottles of fresh coconut oil; some are fragranced with frangipani and roses to use as moisturizer for the skin and hair.  The market smells clean and fresh; unlike the souks in Fez. With the help of Lucas, I quickly navigate my way through buying a full bag of veggies for less than 50 dollars Solomons (about 10 dollars N.Z.)

I make my way to the supermarket to buy some rice, noodles and sauces.  This market, which has a great deal of Chinese food and some nice dusty bottles of capers, is clearly catering for expatriates, who are all around the island.  It’s incredibly expensive and I quickly spend 200 Solomon dollars (about 40) on two small bags of groceries.  In comparison, it’s clear that eating fresh, local food is the way to go here, which suits me perfectly.

Lucas takes me up to the U.S. World War Two memorial and we quickly discuss the war.  He says that the Solomon Islanders fought alongside the U.S. but wonders where their big memorial is. I agree.  The memorial gives a wonderful panoramic of Honiara.  Before I came here, people warned me that Honiara was not a beautiful city.  But I find the place captivating and real.  There is very little pretention here; people just get on with the art of living. 

The city is also very lush, like Hawaii and Samoa.  There are large tropical trees everywhere and the air is perfumed with frangipani.  Rhododendrons colour the streets with corals, rose and purples.  Lucas takes me on a tour of the botanic gardens.  There are paths along the way and we talk about living in the Solomons.  Lucas makes lots of references about the Solomons not being as nice and tidy as New Zealand; almost a little embarrassed.  But he has no reason to be; I’ve already fallen in love with Honiara, whether it’s like home or not.    

He takes me back to the hotel, where I take a nap.  I get woken up by my friend Scarlett, inviting me to dinner.  Less than 24 hours here and I already have an invitation to go out!  Scarlett and I agree to meet at 6:30 p.m. at the local market.  I take my first steps towards walking on my own in Honiara. 

As I walk down the hill, I realize that no one knows where I am.  That if I got picked up or taken, no one would know I was gone until the following day.  And it was getting dark.  I begin to panic as I walk; I completely disregarded all the rules about security in Honiara.  What was I thinking?  And what did I know about this Scarlett person anyway?  Was she going to sell me off into white slavery (Mom is forever cautioning me against being taken into white slavery).

I get down to the meeting point and meet up with Scarlett, who, as it turns out, isn’t going to sell me off into white slavery (at least yet).  Scarlett is loads of fun and we have a lovely Chinese dinner at a local place.  It’s not too expensive for two people (about N.Z. 40) and that includes the three Solomon Island beers.  Now, I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the beers, but it’s a nice fruity lager and I find it really drinkable (but hey, I don’t normally drink beer, so what do I know?).

I get a text message from another friend, Ally*, saying that there is a big party at the Kava Bar and to come down.  Scarlett decides not to come along but she helps me primp up for the big shindig and we talk for a long time.  Scarlett is a totally street tough lady and although she is younger than me by five years, I feel like she is slightly older by what she has seen and experienced.  I explain to her a bit about my life and the fun fact that I leave disasters in my wake.  She looks at me, a bit bemused and pronounces:

“You are shit magnet.” 

I laugh; she is right though, I am a bit of a shit magnet.

“But we can change that, first you got to change what’s in your head.  You worry too much, think too much.  You need to relax more and stop thinking that everything is going to go badly, because it’s hurting you.”

This is one of the fundamental problems of working in emergency management.  It’s my job to think everything is going to go to shit.  I always think about the worst possible outcome and try to figure out how I can deal with it.  Emergency managers aren’t the world’s biggest optimists; we can’t be.  So I’m pessimistic, sometimes overly so. 

To top that off, I work also in public relations, which is all about looking at risk and sorting out responses to those risks.  The loss of control of a situation frightens me; I like contingency plans on top of contingency plans. I do count the rows of seats to the exit and I don’t wear high heels on planes just in case.  And I DO worry far too much. 

Scarlett’s good for me already; she lightens me up and painted my nails to boot!

We head off to the Kava bar, which is pretty much a shack with some great lighting and fun people. I meet some great expats and dance the night away with my friend Ally.  She drops me home and I’m filled with a sense of peace and happiness; everything will be okay.

On Sunday, I get to go to the beach outside of Honiara. I am taken there by Petra*, a local staff member.  Petra is from Malita, which is a long island north of Guadalcanal.  Everyone here seems perfectly comfortable discussing the “tension”, which lasted from 1999 to 2003.  The tension was a period of violence between the Gwales, who are the local people of Guadacanal, and the rest of the Solomon Islands but predominately the Malitians. 

The Gwales consider Honiara their city and everyone is essentially squatting on their land.  After years of encroachment by other peoples, looking for urban opportunities like jobs and education, the Gwales armed themselves.  In response, so did the Malitians.  Now, I’m not going to make judgments here and clearly, the Solomon Islands, while being open about the experience, also want to move on.

In 2003, the Solomon Island government requested assistance to keep the peace from its neighbours.  Australia, New Zealand, Tonga and other pacific island nations answered the called and RAMSI, the peacekeeping mission was created.  Its worked pretty well in keeping the peace but some argue that its also created its own problems of financial inequality between the expatriots and locals.   

Occasionally there are still tension that arise. In 2006, after the election, there were large riots in Chinatown and many shops were burnt and destroyed.  Some say what started as an expression of frustration turned opportunistic too quickly.  Either way, it’s earned the Solomons a probably unfair reputation for instability.  The last election came and went without any real issues.

Anyway, I don’t want to wade too much into the political realm and I don’t have enough knowledge here to make any conclusions, so that’s all I really plan to talk about the political environment here in the Sols.
Petra takes me through Honiara.  Honiara is a north facing city; a small plain that quickly rising to hills and then valleys.  Approximately 50,000 people live here, so it’s not a large city but it’s the largest in the Solomons. 

A lot of people don’t like Honiara but I think it’s a nice city compared to what it could be.  You have to avoid the occasional beetle nut spittle on the sidewalk.  Beetle nut is a nut that has a stimulant and potentially hallucinogenic quality.  People chew the nut and put lime with the nut to give it more flavor.  The nut spittle has a red quality, turning people’s mouths bright orange and red.  There are large pools of spittle on the sidewalk in some places.

There are slums on the outskirts of the city and as we leave, one teenager throws a large coconut at the car until he sees the NGO sign on the vehicle and then looks embarrassed.

We cross over some bridges, some in fairly interesting states.  It rains a lot and heavily here, causing flash flooding.  This makes it difficult to maintain infrastructure; the islands aren’t use to the way we do things in the developed world and doesn’t think much of our structures. 

We arrive at Bonege beach; a popular beach amongst the RAMSI people for diving.  It costs 20 Solomons (about three n.z. dollars) to get in.  There, Petra and I take shelter under a grass hut and eat our salad. 

We munch on some salad I fixed up at the hotel.  The capsicum here is small, crunchy and almost has a chilli bite to it.  The tomatoes I bought are small too; little cherry tomatoes. With some lime juice and garlic, boom, a salad is born.  I may not be able to cook much, but salad I can do. Petra is very happy with it and ask me for the recipe.

Petra tells me of her family in Maliata.  On that island, people are either from the land or the sea, meaning that essentially the population is cut in half between farmers and fishing people.  Her mother was from the sea people and her father from the land people, making her a mixture of the two.  She lived with her mother on a small island off the coast.  She tells me that every day she had to take a boat to and from the island to go to school.

I take a quick break from the conversation and jump in the water.  Currently, my bathing suit top is experiencing difficulties (the straps keep snapping off which is really annoying) so I wear a tank top and shorts in the water.  Unfortunately, I had forgotten that I was wearing my dark grey and pink pokka dotta’d bra, which must have looked lovely under my newly soaked white tank top.  The RAMSI fellahs were all over the beach and I could hear excited talking, staring and a bit of snickering.  Great.  I’m in the country from less than 72 hours and I’m already the Bridget Jones of the Solomon Islands. Fantastic.

When I return, embarrassed and covering my top with my arms, Petra smiles broadly and laughs.  We sit and she continues her stories.

Her mother’s grandfather was a man who practiced kastam or custom.  This is a belief system based on the old ways of doing things and the belief in magick.  The system is based on gods; shark and crocodile gods (on land its snakes). 

She tells me that one day, there was a big storm and her canoe broke up on the rocks of the mainland as she was going to school.  She said that the group of cousins and siblings lost everything, clothes, food and books.  They had to make a decision to swim back the 500 metres back to the island.  As they were swimming, she said a large black shark, the largest she had ever seen (with a white belly) swam underneath the children.  She started to scream and cry, she was eight years old and terrified.  Her cousin told her:

“Look, he is helping us by pushing us forward.  He won’t hurt us, he is protecting us.”

Turns out, he was either right or the shark decided against munching on one of the kids.

The grandfather, who was taking care of the nets on the beach, saw the big shark fin out of the water.  He believed it was a warning and ran to the village to tell Petra’s mother to go to the other beach to check on the kids.  Sure enough, she found the kids in shock, sitting on the beach.

As soon as the grandfather heard about the kids being safe, he took a piglet out to the water, slit its throat and gave it to the shark as a gift.  Sharks apparently don’t attack often here and if they do, its seen as people having made bad calls in their life and the sharks are taking out natural retribution.

Petra drives me back to visit Ally’s house, which is situated on the hill.  I am sad to see Petra go; she is good company and I enjoy listening to her stories.

Ally’s house is a stark difference from the slums we have just driven through, with security gates and a treadmill.  Ally and I gossip, swim and sun ourselves.  I pick up some books in her library and we munch happily on barbeque flavoured crisps.  We catch up on how the other volunteers are doing throughout the islands; most of us on in the provinces, where power and packaged foods are luxuries.  One volunteer lives on an island by himself, in a hut on stilts looking out on the ocean.  He lives on solar power and fish from the sea.  It’s a simple life but apparently he loves it.      

I return to my little hotel room, relieved and grateful to have it; glad I don’t live in a grass hut. And after all even if it wasn’t what I expected, it’s Sanalae: just for the time being. 

*Names have been changed to protect my new found friends; I don’t want to piss them off already (although they all know about this blog anyway).

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The End of the Journey and the Beginning of a New One

“Silent gratitude isn't much use to anyone.”

After nine weeks, my trip around the world is coming to its final destination: the Solomon Islands.  I'm a very excited to finally be coming to a place I can call home for a year and not live out of my suitcase.  It has been a wonderful journey, visiting with old friends and making some new ones.  A trip of a lifetime or in my case, this trip was my lifeline back to being me again.  I feel amazing, whole and completely happy.

This blog has been most therapeutic for me and someday, I'll sit down and read every one of them again.  For me, what I can also say is that, which each stop I felt lighter and happier. Some stops were rougher than others (Iceland, I'm looking at you) but I needed each destination to help me see things in a different light.  So yay!

You know, I have covered the following distances:
Distance traveled:
43, 521 KMS
or for you yankees thats 27,042 miles

I'd like to say that I'm awesome and I did this all on my own.  But I didn't; not even remotely.  So this is sort of the gratitude blog (those people who are searching for Nuns in Stilettos and Granny Panties can move on, because this might bore you).  Yes that is the most frequently used search terms to find my blog.  Hilarious.

So this is like my Oscar speech...its going to be long, tedious and only slightly interesting to those people whose name I mention.  I'm going to break it down by destination.

The Beginning of My Journey
Christchurch:  My thanks to Louise, my angel, David and Fiona for helping me with my apartment. To my Helens (Grant, Wilton, Moore) for holding my hands during rough times.  
Jon Mitch, thanks for looking after me and taking the hard line when I needed it.  To James and Janelle for always putting me in my place and helping me eliminate the "flapigator". To Bill, for helping arrange a very nice send off and being the inspiration to go to the Solomons.  Thank you Bill.  To Joanne, for designing the banner of this blog! THANK YOU!
To Katherine, for letting me go early on my last day and being a generally cool chick.  My thanks to Corinne for letting me share her space, both emotionally and physically.  My thanks to my whole comms team for helping me through all the scary, scary times.  My thanks to Sian for letting me know that everything was going to get better.  To the step kids (you know who you are) for listening and getting me drunk at the pub.
To Alistair for staying all afternoon at my farewell and getting me drunk (there are lot of people helping with getting me drunk...perhaps I shouldn't name them all.) To Murns for driving me to the airport and helping me dance the night away (you too Tipper). To Sam and Shane for looking after my papason chair; I hope you enjoy it as much as I have. Oh and thanks for listening too.
Daniel, for being such a good boss and always finding the solutions in life are in Northern Exposure episodes.  Many thanks, I hope I live up to being Maggie...To Matt for storing my stuff and letting me play guitar hero.  To Jamie for making me go out and eat Thai.  
To Gaynor for helping me notice that life wasn't ALL about me and that my friends need my support sometimes too.  Love you.  My thanks to all the members of the Red Socks Tramping Club, for some very good times.  
My thanks to the RATS team, for letting me sort my shit out.
My thanks to Antony for storing my stuff and looking after my mail. You are still a very nice ex, putting up with this blog and all.
My thanks to the Irish for letting me pirate all their stuff.  My thanks to Chloe bear for being the best climbing buddy/fishing buddy a girl could ask for.  My thanks to Scott for understanding that I am a free spirit and nothing can be done to change that.  My thanks to Jude for loving and taking care of Mr. Dot Dot.  Anyone else I've forgotten, I'm sorry.  Will re-edit this blog in necessary!!!

AUCKLAND- My thanks to Kiri BABE! who let me stay at her place, got me totally drunk and let me make drunk phone calls using her cellphone.  Many thanks Kiri Babe.

San Fran- My thanks and love to Tata Katie and Uncle Walter for letting me crash at their place. I was pretty shell shocked when I arrived; thank you for putting up with me just sitting there and not saying anything.  Thank you to Tina for an awesome time at the Winchester Mystery House.  See, ninja girls and pirate girls CAN get along.  Thank you to Vanilla Bear for taking care of Tina.  Thank you to Mr. Clark and Craig for letting me stay at their place and taking me to a classic Hawaiian themed diner.  Oh and watching the Sopranos on Craig's fainting couch...most fun!

Seattle- Thank you to my lovely cousin Amy, one of the busiest ladies I know, who took time to spend with me.  Again, sorry for being shell shocked, it was a lot to process!  Thank you to Eric and Nancy for feeding me.  Thanks to Megan and Jeff for helping us with directions and a nice steak.

Kennewick- Thanks to Chris and Michele and Mr. Vincent for loving guys are so lovely.  Thanks Chris for making me laugh, Mr. Fat Fatty (Dr. Dada's words, not mine).  Thanks Michele for giving me the best nephew in the world (I'm not biased or anything).  Thank you to Amy Cherry for driving all the way from Portland to see me for two hours.  Wow.  (Mom, I know you are reading this and getting pissed off, just wait for it).
Tata Claudine for making a lovely lunch and reminding me of the excitement of self expression.

Cleveland-Thank you to Zoe and Vern for letting me stay with Mike; it was very nice to let you share him with me. Thank you Mike for letting me stay at the Church of Mike and enjoying Bedford.  It was a nice journey down Mainstreet America and fringe America, all at the same time.  Was also lovely sleeping under the dome.  Thank you.

New York- Katie LOVE you and taking me everywhere and letting me know that there was nothing to be afraid of (well not nothing) and holding my hand when I got drunk and cried on the subway all the way to Brooklyn from Manhattan.  Thank you.

Iceland-Thank you Helen for being the best trip organizer a girl could hope for.  Love you Wusband. Jessica for just asking me what I needed.  Daniel for reminding me that conversations with strangers could be interesting again and not tedious anymore.  The Canterbury Earthquake for reminding me that life moves on and people continue without me just fine.

Shrewsbury-Thanks to the Rev and the Revette for letting stay with them. I had a wonderful time.

Edinburgh-Okay, just a side note but THIS was my favorite place on the whole trip. It was love at first sight; I must live in Edinburgh someday, just because it makes me happy.  Anyway, back to the thank yous.
Thanks to Mae and Sarah for being good road trip buddies.  Christine and Eric putting up with my meltdown coming down off Ben Nevis.
Eddy for letting me stay at his place, taking me around, forcing me up Ben Nevis, letting me be mad at him and then sending all the stuff I left at his place to France.  Truly, you are an awesomely ruggedly handsome man Eddy. Here's to another 9 years of friendship.

London-To Annabel for being lovely, letting me stay in her bed  and looking after me around London.

Paris-Ah to Mom! Finally!!! Mom for helping me pay for this awesome trip, having a lovely time around Paris and enjoying the sights. Thank you!  No words can express my deep gratitude for my mother.

Auxerre- To Meadow for looking after my grandparents so well and loving my crazy family.  To Aunt Mirelle and Uncle Vincent for letting me stay at their place and use their interwebs. Thank you so much.  To Aunt Jocelyn for saying "You mustz love you firsts, Sarha, then you canz let love in for ze other people."  Truer words were never spoken.  To my cousin Julie, for showing me the beauty of new life.  To Frankie and Rena for showing me that cross cultural relationships can work.  Even the really tough ones.  To Aunt Francine and Uncle Christian for being excellent hosts.  For Tata Natalie for showing me the beauty in small things.

Paris again-To Dad, for being a counselor and friend.  For always taking the calm, loving path and reminding me of the importance of patience in all things, especially matters of the heart.  

Other Places: There are, of course, people who have helped me that I either haven't even met OR have helped from afar.  So thank you to Hannah, Melanie et all at VSA Wellington for getting me prepared on this trip. I have never felt so completely taken care of by one organisation...truly, it has been wonderful having you guys support me during this SCARY time.

Thank you to Steve at VSA Solomons for helping me not worry and just reminding that me, being there is the most important thing.

Ahhhhh...okay...I'm done.  That's my gratitude/Oscar speech.  I hope you somewhat enjoyed it...if not, go to the Cheese blog or the blog about Fez.  Those are both slightly more entertaining...I might add photos to spice up this blog...maybe some naked photos or something..maybe I need pictures of nuns in Stilettos...

Sunday, October 17, 2010

C'est la vie

One thing I love about having a huge family are the family get togethers.  On Sunday, I had the pleasure of eating not with one or two but four of my aunties and one uncle (mom comes from a family of 10).  With them came the cousins, David and Brooke, Frankie and Rena (a lovely Nepalese family who married into one of THE funniest, craziest families on earth…I can’t help it, I was born into it) and of course Meme and Pepe.  All up we numbered about 22 souls, munching on French cheese, French apple pie (yum!) and a number of other French foods.

There was loud talking, hand gestures (the family IS half Italian, after all), laughing and general fun.  The French kiss…on the cheeks all the time.  This can be off-putting, perhaps, to someone who isn’t familiar with physical contact.  Men kiss men, women kiss women…it’s a whole cheek kissing orgy.  When I explain that kiwis don’t kiss on the cheeks and rarely hug, the French look at me aghast.   For them, physical contact is a must.  You don’t feel like you have been to France unless you have been kissed on both cheeks, hugged, had your cheek pinched (I have chubby cheeks, they can’t resist), and your bottom smacked, usually loudly and with a great deal of force.

I’ve really enjoyed bonding with my family, dusting off my poor French and learning a thing or two about where I come from.  Spending time with my grandparents is the best.  Pepe is still pretty sharp for 90, even though he spends most of his hours sleeping.  I think with Pepe, when he realized he couldn’t paint anymore, he just sort of gave up a little bit.  For Pepe, painting was his communication to the world; his source of his self expression.  When he lost that about five years ago, he just sort of retreated into his own world of tranquility and sleep.

I understand the importance of self expression.  Its one of the main reasons that I write this blog.  But also, one of my favorite outlets of self expression is through music, whether listening or playing it.  I really lost my love of playing music for about eight years and recently I got back into it.  I had always loved performing and got a chance to do it again recently at a talent night at work.  For me, it was something so small but so important to just get back out there and play in front of other people again, even if it wasn't very good.  It was just freeing to sing and play piano and generally make an ass of myself in front of other people.  It helped me connect with a part of myself that had long gone; sometimes things come back to you, even after a very long time.  It was like meeting up with your first love; awkward at first and then just happy because you can relish in the fact that somewhere, that part of you still exists under all the life experience. 

Meme, on the other hand, is very aware.  For her, self expression comes from…well expressing herself to other people through talking and sharing.  Meme is very much a social person; she loves having her huge, beautiful family around.  And she does have a beautiful family; each of the Petetin girls are stunners, beautiful and strong.  Meme says that my mother was like a little commandant with her sisters, always telling people what to do (you can tell she was destined to run her own business at a young age).  My aunt Katie, on the other hand, was the intellectual, a "very good, nice girl" Meme says and always trying to keep the peace.  Claudine, my oldest auntie, was calm and serene.  The list goes on...

In my family, women are the matriarchs, the power centre.  Meme and Mom and all the Petetin sisters are the movers and shakers in their own families.  The power of the women is very much evident here.  They get things going and organize.  It makes me feel embarrassed too; all the women here are super busy, amazing professionals but still find time to bake an amazing apple pie or go hunting for mushrooms (I love a good mushroom hunt myself) or tend to their garden.  It makes me feel slightly ashamed; I should have worked harder to be a good homemaker…instead I just didn’t invest myself in my home very much.  Something to learn when I settle in the Solomons.

Being in Auxerre is wonderful; it’s an ancient French city, with three huge cathedrals that grace the city’s skyline.  Dad and I visit the oldest cathedral, and for the first time, visit the crypts downstairs.  The old frescoes are amazing in colour and how long they have stayed vibrant; Jesus sits on top of his cloud, looking solemnly down.  The Four horses of the Apocalypse flanking him (I have been recently called one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse by my family due to disasters following in my wake).  Therefor I feel an natural affinity to the horsemen; nobody asked them to be death and destruction on earth; they just had a role to play.  I understand.

In the centre of the town is the old part; a completely medieval city perfectly intact.  We walk the cobblestone streets.  Autumn has come; I love the smell and sight of autumn in France.  The starting of the fires being lit in homes (yes they have open fires here and no, the French government is going to do anything about it).  Everything is about autumn food; stewed apples, grapes, sausages etc…it’s a lovely time of year to visit, it’s cozy.

My dad and I spend a lot of time walking and talking about life.  Dad is sort of my spiritual adviser; he has a gentle, soft approach to life.   He is more of a contemplator than a doer; my mom is a “go out and getz it done, even if you have no ideaz whatz you are doingz!”.  Dad is much more a planner, a thinker. 

I remember that I was really upset about something earlier this year, something someone had done to me (I can’t remember what it was) and my dad softly said “Everyone needs a justification.” Whether its family roots or blaming other people, no one likes to admit that they fucked up, that they have made mistakes.  I tend to do the same thing; I reference my family a lot in the blaming. 

So to answer my dad, I will say that in life, I have fucked up, made horrible choices and at times, been downright selfish.  No excuses, no one else to blame.  I’ve been the bad guy, I’ll admit to that.  Its freeing, in a way, to say yes I’ve been wrong.  But hopefully I’ve learned something for next time and I won't make the same errors twice...or in my case for the 20th time...Dad always says that what we resist persists, because we haven't learned the lesson yet. I hope I don't have to ever learn certain lessons again.

But generally my mood is super happy; am so ready to get going and head to the Solomons. So the last few days in France are spent contemplating the strike and whether there will be enough petrol to fly the plane (just received word…there is!).  And also how many pairs of underwear I can wear under my clothes into the Solomons.  You see, I’m only allowed 20 kilos before they charge me 13 Aus. more per kilo (eek!), so I’m going to do what we call “layering”.
I think it will go something like this: six pairs of underwear on…one pair of shorts, one pair of jeans, one dress over all…four bras on, one tank top, two tops, and a jacket (don’t worry, I’ll take photos). 

I’ll look like the Staypuff marshmallow girl…but I won’t have to pay as much (hey jeans weigh a lot…so does my fancy lacy granny panties!). 

Must be those Scottish roots that allows me to suffer to save a bob or two…either way, there is always some ancestry of mine to blame the way I am on!  Wait, didn’t I just say that I wasn’t going to blame my roots anymore?  God, navel gazing can get confusing…

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Cheese Blog

This blog is all about cheese.  If you don't like cheese, move along.  Also, I have a cold, so its not going to be as funny as usual; sorry.

Okay, I'm back in Auxerre, with my family.  I was going to visit my truly amazing cousin Celine but the train strike (damn you french workers and your silly belief in democracy!) has put a stop to that for now.  Its a pity; Celine is a freakin rock star and I was really looking forward to spending some time with her.

Anyway, on to the cheese...
France is a country that knows how to take care of the important things in life; wines, food, clothing and revolutions.  But, what the French do really well is make cheese.  No meal is complete without the cheese platter at the end.  Now, there are more than 400 varieties of cheeses in France; each region has its own distinct cheeses and is proud of them.

In Franche Comte, there are two especially good cheeses: canquiette (which comes in a tub and essentially liquid brie with garlic) and Comte, a hard cheese with a nutty flavour.  In Bourgogne, where my grandparents live, there are many, many types of cheeses.  This are is a big agricultural area and many of abbeys and nunnerys made money by making specialty cheeses.  This continues today.

Now, my mother took me to the super market with her and told me, "Sara, pick out ze three cheeses for ze family tonight...and make zem good ones!  I don't wantz you to embarrass yourself..."

Let me break it down for you re: the cheese shopping experience in France. There are ENTIRE rows of cheeses; there are more than 400 varieties now...the choices are...extreme.  There is no Tasty, Edam, Colby or Cheddar cheeses...its not like that.  Each one comes in its own unique packaging; wooden round boxes, glass or plastic casing.  And you have no idea what the cheeses actually are because my french ain't so hot right now.

I have to breathe deeply.  I consider my options.  Now, I love Epoisses, so I get a real old one.  Epoisses is a white cheese with an orange rind.  It smells vaguely like a sewer but tastes divine.  Its an old joke that you have to hold your nose when eating Epoisses.  So one down.

The second is a tub of canquiette from Franche Comte.  Its another safe choice.  The last one, however, I take a punt on.  There is a round cheese that has a somewhat orange rind made by monks in Bourgogne.  I figure monks who are distracted by silly things like women or society, surely will make an awesome cheese.

Nervously I hand my three cheeses to my mom.

"Hmmm...okay...not sure about the monk's cheese but lets give it a go."

We arrive at my grandparent's house.  I wait for dinner.  I watch them open up the package of cheese.  Picking out the right cheese is really important; people in France talk about cheese constantly (its sort of a national pastime).  Dinner finishes.  The knives come out.  The cheeses are unwrapped.  I look at my grandfather's face expectantly.  His eyebrows raises as he tries the monks cheese.

"Ummm...son bonne!"

Yay!  I find out later that he gets people to BUY him the cheese because he loves it so much.  I don't really care for the cheese myself  (its kind of weird; sort of like a bizarre mixture of creme frache and string cheese, not much taste) but he loves it.  I have passed an important family test.  Why this is extra important to me is that Pepe doesn't eat too much anymore; so to get him to eat a pretty large chunk of cheese is a HUGE accomplishment.

Its wonderful to be in France and discover interesting facts about yourself and your family.  I look through some old photographs and there is Primo, my great, great grandmother's first son (she was Italian).  Looking through all the baby photos, wedding photos, photos of family reunions.  I enjoy the photos of my grandfather caving, wearing his helmet, harness, ropes tied around his waist...reminds me of RATS (the rescue team I was a part of).  It's good to see where I get things from.

I also have enjoyed spending time with Meme, my grandmother, who has significant memory issues.  When I come to see her, she doesn't remember me being there the day before, so its like a whole new visit!  She is always thrilled and happy to see me.  I wonder if maybe there isn't an upside to the whole memory loss thing. If we treat people like its the first time we have seen them, maybe we would appreciate them more and make the time we have together that much more special...its just a thought...

Anyway, I have less than a week now until I get to the Solomons and I'm started to get very excited about my new life there.  I can't wait to start working, get my little garden set up and look after a little home again.

You know, its been a year since I separated from my husband.  During this year, I felt like I was in a war, mostly with myself.  There was a great deal of anger, guilt, loneliness, grief, longing, resentment and other emotional crap to wade through. This trip really saved me from becoming a bitter old woman and now I'm just a peaceful old woman.

Don't get me wrong; I would have been lost without my friends supporting me too but sometimes you just need to deal with yourself without leaning on anyone else for awhile.  I was hurting people caught in the cross fire of my emotional civil war; I clearly needed a break just to deal with myself.  I didn't realise how exhausted I was until I got on the plane; tiredness from more than three years of dealing with difficult things, trying to be strong and shouldering the responsibility for a lot of things.

Anyway, I've raised the white flag and called a truce with myself.  I've signed the peace treaty and both sides have put down their guns.

Maybe its because the cheese. Maybe its the travel. Either way, I feel like a whole new person; excited about the possibilities in life, forgiving myself and my past. I am looking forward to the future, excited by the possibilities of my life.

Even if its a future without much variety in cheeses...dammit.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Cruisin’ Part Three: The Final Port

After another night of celebrations and parties (man, do those Italians know how to party; I find it difficult to keep up!), we arrive at our last port of Barcelona. We only have four hours and a bit there, which completely sucks because it is an amazing city.

I decided to do one last excursion which was a bike ride through Barcelona. Call it being inspired by Mike’s bike shop but I thought it would be a fun and interesting way to see the city.

Barcelona is so different from Valencia; there are no baroque anything pretty much anywhere. While Valencia almost had a holy or aristocratic air to it, Barcelona pumps with energy and vibrancy. As we round the small inner city streets on our bikes, I can smell sweet bread baking. I find myself utterly charmed by Barcelona’s many facades; it’s a city of the Moors and ancient Europe, with a great deal of modern architecture slapped in for good measure.

Past the old city are huge streets and the city moves at an orderly fashion. The boardwalk leads out to almost red sandy beaches. The Med sea feels cool on my feet and I take a moment to bask in the sun and wonder at life, the sea and the city at my back.

We continue on our journey and I hate to admit it but the group is kind of a menace; the Italians once again cause much more panic and disruption, which I normally don’t mind, but it almost causes several crashes. The older men want to lead the front of the pack and the older women don’t want to be too far behind. The Italians heckle our tour guide because he starts in English first rather than Italian. And because they can’t talk, the Italians ring their bike bells constantly, because they can’t stand the silence or because they like the sound of the bells.

I hang out a little with an Australian couple on their honeymoon; they are good folks. The man says, “Hey we have ten minutes. Let’s grab two beers each and start getting pissed!” Aw…the aussies…what’s not to love? The best part was him complaining about all the kiwi criminals coming to Australia, causing a lot of trouble, dam those kiwi criminals coming to Australia! How dare they!

I’ll let the kiwis ponder this one for a moment.

We zip easily through the some of the city’s 100 kilometres of bike paths. It’s an excellent city to take a bike through and the motorists are more than bike friendly to our group. One thing I love about many of the European cities I’ve been to is this “Rent a bike” concept, where they have city bikes, available for rent on the side of the street. You can take one for an hour, a week, whatever; just pay up and the bike’s yours. Because many European cities were developed prior to the car, the cities are pretty much all imminently walkable and bikeable. I think Europe will be able to survive an issue like peak oil much better than say, the U.S. or Australia, which developed more of a suburban type design.

We pass one of the cities cathedrals and a wedding is taking place. I take a look at the bride, in gold. She is obviously a much older bride, with grey hairs lining her temple and with her outfit; I surmise that it could be a second wedding. Everyone looks cheerful and the cathedral is full of lit candles.

The three hour bike ride is over much more quickly than I would have liked. We didn’t visit the houses or Cathedral that Gaudi designed, which is a real disappointment. But you can’t have everything. Like I’ve said before, cruises are great as tasters, letting you know where you want to return to.

For myself, I could see living in Barcelona or Cadiz. I loved Cadiz’s ancient nature, its calm “hey we’ve been there, done that” mentality and its sense of mystery. You really feel like Poseidon himself could happily walk out of the sea and just hang out on one of the many lounge chairs, sipping sangria and munching on tapas. Anything seems possible there.

The Bad Parts of the Cruise

Nothing in life is sweetness and light and a cruise is no different. The cruise didn’t start off so hot when I did not receive a life jacket (there was none in the cabin for me) and asking every single crew member I met to find out where to get one, only to be given one after I called up to customer services twice some four hours later. The crew members even hid me in the back of the line so the safety officials wouldn’t see me!

The food the first couple of nights was not very good BUT I discovered that if you take the chef’s pick, you did pretty well.

The Italians were a blessing and a curse. They constantly talk on the buses, in the elevators and its loud, sometimes yelling at each other. A boat full of 1500 of them for nine days can be a bit tiring.

The cabin was big but sleeping on the kids bed next to my parents wasn’t a personal high but hey, I’m on a cruise! Why complain???

The crew also took our passports away, which wasn’t cool. We took our passports back each day and that was a real hassle. I object to anyone taking my passport off of me for any reason and they never gave us a real valid reason.

The Best Parts of the Cruise

The staff were amazing and they did take very good care of us. The second day I had a full body scrub and body massage. Maria, a lady from Portugal, took a stiff brush and scrubbed down my skin, then covered me in warm oil like a little piggy and rubbed lime and ginger sea salt all over my body. Afterwards she rubbed moisturizer all over my body in a wonder full body massage. Brilliant. I floated back to my room and slept for three hours, feeling like a queen.

I used the gym a lot but I’m pretty sure I’ve gained some weight. But according to my Solomon Island connections, they recommended I gorge myself on yummy food because the food is pretty basic. The sauna and Turkish bath were amazing; they both had huge windows that looked out into the ocean while you sweat. Amazing.

But the best part of the whole cruise is spending time with my parents. Living in New Zealand (and shortly the Solomon Islands…only 11 days to go!), I don’t see them as often as either of us like, so it’s good to spend some holiday time with each other. Mom is great fun, but she can cause lots of trouble. She has the mentality of a South American dictator, going where she shouldn’t with confidence and people just naturally follow her. She generally causes a good deal of chaos in her wake.

“See, if you act confident even if you have no idea what you are doing, people will follow you. Ze are sheeps!”

No wonder she received the Washington State Small Businesswoman of the year award (she runs a small business BUT is also, conveniently, small in stature).

I have to rescue mom a couple of times from either long waits or wrong paths. But no matter what, Mom is never boring and generally more fun than trouble. She is spontaneous and always has a joke, a story or a funny observation. Mom is an excellent traveling companion because she loves changing her mind, so if you have a good suggestion or even a fairly dubious one, she is game. Anything that vaguely involves mischief or mayhem, she’s in.

Dad, I’ve discovered, is not much of a traveler. He would prefer to sit at home with his dogs, his television, and running the business. He likes to be in control of his surroundings or not in control at all, there is no middle ground. Sure he enjoys Europe but I get the sneaking suspicion that he wouldn’t leave the U.S. at all if it wasn’t for Mom.

My parents are a great love story. They met on a blind date in Yakima (of all places) and got engaged 7 dates later. Dad has done everything possible to make her happy, even though she is far from her home (remember, she is a little French lady…no, really I mean it…she doesn’t pronounce h’s at all) and misses her parents and home country still. He supported her through two masters degrees (one she started at age 57), a business and many other fun side projects. Mostly, he has helped her grow as a person, always cheering her on and helping her along the way. He even spent days typing up her master’s thesis. Dad always put her concerns first and made sure she was happy. They are a wonderful example of how to make an international relationship work successfully.

It does mean that on occasion he has had to give up on things he would have rather done. But Dad’s main focus has always been the family; he went ten years without buying a suit when we were growing up. Sure, he can be doddery and an old curmudgeon but he has a heart of gold and would walk through a valley of broken glass for those he loves. And we McBride kids aren’t easy ones and I’m sure we could have benefitted from stronger discipline at times but Dad and Mom are patient, loving and kind; the best kind of parents one could ever hope to have.

Dad and I develop a nice habit on the cruise; we get a hot chocolate at about 10 p.m. and sit around to discuss life in general. One of the best discussions I have with Dad is about the concept of nuclear fission and fusion. Dad is a scientist by trade and we discuss the ins and outs of energy. I find it fascinating that in nature, more energy is generated, about a 1,000 times more, through the process of creation (fusion) than the process of destruction through separation of atoms (fission).

Mom with Fez behind her.  Thanks Mom for helping me with my trip!

These artisans and historians, craftsmen, poets, playwrights, planners, architects and city officials have left us a wonderful legacy to appreciate. The process of creation is ongoing here, as everywhere, and it outlives the concept of destruction by miles.

I’m sad to leave the cruise behind; I’ve had a blast!

But now I have ten days left until I leave for the Solomon Islands. The cruise has been amazing and I’m so glad I got the opportunity to go. But I have to admit that underneath the sadness is excitement for the adventures ahead; Nice, Paris, Limoges, Auxerre, Dijon, Paris, Dubai, Brisbane and Honiara await.

And, even if I’m a little fatter than before, I’m ready for the next jump.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Cruisin’ Part 2

After our adventure in Morocco, we return to the ship, pretty tired. The sea is rough and Mom becomes slightly green around the gills. I help her with her sea sickness; I’ve been there before. It is a satisfying feeling, to mother your own mother. It helps me feel in some small way that I am giving back all her nurturing and love over the years.

Big Cathedral
The next morning we arrive in Cadiz. According to many historians Cadiz is the oldest settlement in Western Europe. The city is on an island and has been built upon over the many millennia. Originally it was settled by the Phoenicians some 900 years before the birth of Christ.

We visit the old ruins which has the foundations of a Phoenician temple. More interestingly though are the ruins on top of it; that of a roman hospital and temple to Apollo. Apollo was the father, quite literally, of medicine.

The myth goes that Apollo fell in love with a beautiful human woman and became her lover. However, she married another human on the sly. Apollo, mad with jealousy, killed both of them and ripped his child from her womb. That child, who I’m assuming would have been pretty pissed off at his dad for doing such a dirty deed, became the god of medicine and today, the medical profession still bears his logo: the snake twisting around the staff.
Ruins from the Roman Temple

The Romans believed this temple had many medicinal purposes. Beneath the temple were tidal basins and the cures they practiced were based on the tides, times of year and interestingly enough, the dreams of patients. The doctors bathed the patients in the sea waters and then put them to bed. The patient, probably tired from hours or days of travel and of course their own ailments, slept. And slept. They were supposed to dream of Apollo and the cure he would give them. This would give the physician direction on what to do next.

Of course the Romans left eventually, another group took over, and then the Moors arrived, building on top of the roman temple. And it continues….Cadiz is a beautiful, old coastal town, its architecture coloured by the many invasions; each invading culture dropped its own flavor on top of the older one, subverting the former’s power. But clearly, the Cadizians maintained some of the older culture and there is something distinctly pagan about Cadiz, with its many apothecary shops and interesting shrines.

Cadiz's water fort.
My favorite place has got to be the causeway that stretches out a good kilometer out to see ending in a beautiful ocean fort that protected the harbor. Obviously the Cadizians didn’t do too much protecting; they were constantly being overtaken by empires, eventually ending up as part of the Castillian principality.

Cadiz benefitted hugely from the Spanish exploits to the Americas; many merchants made Cadiz their home base and the merchant quarter is dripping in wealth. Blue and white tiles cover the buildings and the designs are rich. The churches also sing of the wealth there; with gilded baroque designs.

I couldn't figure out how to change this picture...sorry.
One church has a beautiful statue of Mary of Magdalene; her eyes brim with tears and the tears stream down her face. It’s a truly impressive statue.

We eat some tapas and some gelato, as is our habit and we are all sad to leave Cadiz. It has a vibe, ancient in origin…you ge the sense that the Cadizians would be more than happy to be cut off, finally, from the rest of world, happy to sun themselves, fish and live off the sea.

The next day we go to Lisbon, which is almost completely opposite to Cadiz in every respect. Its sprawling, modern and bustling in comparison. Lisbon was razed to the ground by a gigantic earthquake in 1755, so everything was pretty much built since then. It’s a port city and the capital of Portugal. Portuguese is deceptively easy to read; it looks like a mixture of French and latin. But trying to understand it’s an entirely different prospect. There are a great deal of shhhhhes and slurring in the language; it almost sounds vaguely Russian. But the Portuguese area very friendly to Americans and make every attempt to accommodate our bad Portuguese.

Cadiz...I haven't uploaded my Lisbon/Valencia photos yet.
We take a tour bus around half of the city and wind up near the World Expo 1998 (hey do they still have these anymore?) area. The buildings are brand new and it appears to be a bit of a ghost town. It is asad to see such modern buildings and infrastructure go unused by the populace.

We eventually get to the old town in Lisbon, which is stunning. We walk up to an old cathedral, which only as the bare infrastructure left. There is no ceiling, just blue sky. The cathedral was built around the 13th century and the sculptures reflect the conquistadors and knights of days past. I don’t think I have ever seen a more beautiful cathedral.

Inside is a museum which houses some interesting antiquates, including mummies from Egypt and Peru. And the graves of several kings and queens of Portugal.

Lisbon is certainly not as sunny or wealthy as its larger neighbor Spain, but it has a certain activity to it, a laid back atmosphere.

We sit in a restaurant and eat a huge plate of seafood, with crayfish, octopus, and fillets of fish pilled high, steaming on the plate. It’s delicious (I love seafood) and gets quickly devoured by the three of us.

Back to the boat for a sea day. I usually spend sea days relaxing, reading, sunning and exploring the ship. It’s a lovely break in the schedule and I enjoy the day of rest thoroughly. That night was our last gala night, which meant dressing up. In the restaurant, there was much celebration and dancing…I’ll say one thing for the Italians, they know how to make an evening lively!

In the morning, we take a tour of the kitchens by our English host Sean. Sean, who is actually English, resembles one of the members of Monty Python (no not Michael Palin or John Cleese; his name escapes just now…). The kitchens are immense and we meet the executive chef, who looks surprisingly young for someone who is responsible for feeding 4,000 people a day. It all looks very ordered and calm but I suspect as soon as we leave, Paolo the executive chef, will turn into an Italian Gordon Ramsey and start swearing at the Indonesian sous chef.

Pretty flower...
In the afternoon, we head off for Valencia. I have to say that in the bussing, I wasn’t terribly impressed with the city. It looked cold, industrial and modern. But once we got into it, the 300 bell towers, with their domes covered in cobalt blue shiny tiles, won me over.

The city had a lovely exhibit of four churches being refurbished. The churches, all built either on the former sites of old Mosques or Mosques changed over into churches. The baroque period was clearly popular with the Valencians; not only are the cathedrals covered in marble but so are the sidewalk, the noble houses and the post office. It’s like Queen Marie-Antoinette threw up all over Valencia.

The exhibits were clearly a big deal for the city; they had decorated the sidewalks with a baroque design for visitors to follow the path. What a brilliant idea! We easily navigated our way to the four churches, spread out through the city.

The churches we visit are beautiful though and every possible service is covered in designs, whether they are cherubs, ivy or grapes. The ceilings are covered in gold overlay but one, the Church of Is a light baby blue with white carvings. We pass two nuns in full black and white habits that look like rejects from the Sound of Music. I thought nuns didn’t go for the full costume anymore, preferring a more modern costume. Clearly not. It makes me think what a life of quiet spiritual reflection would be like. A life without men might be quite peaceful but then again, probably deeply boring.

All these churches makes me reflect on my own concept of religion and spirituality. As we pass by the painting of the saints, I contemplate poor St. Bartholomew, who had his skin removed. Or one poor saint who was boiled alive. John the Baptist who was beheaded. Another stoned to death. St. Paul who was crucified upside down. One sculpture of a saint held her own disembodied breasts in her hands (OMFG!!!! WTF????) I don’t think I would be willing to lose the twins for religion, sorry.

Eddy (remember Eddy, my friend from Scotland) and I had a long discussion about whether or not people have souls (and I think we talked about snails having souls too). Mostly I just disagree with Eddy because I know he secretly enjoys the argument; Eds is a man of science and I’m sort of a religious and philosophical a la carte person. I take a bit of everything from everywhere and give it a go.

I guess I believe that there is an aspect of the divine in all of us, so therefore all religious and philosophical belief systems have a bit of divinity. Except fruitarians; I think those people are a bit daft. Anyway, I think arguing over religion or using science to confirm anything about god or spirituality is a waste of time. I’m a big Humist that way; belief will always be stronger than logic and you can’t change someone’s belief, even if pesky things like facts get in the way.

Anyway, so I like old churches; the feeling of communal worship. I appreciate the hard work, dedication and historical context of churches. Because people couldn’t read, art and artifice served to teach the people. And so we have the amazing works of art to look at today.
DOME!!!!  Slightly more impressive than the Church of Mike's Dome.

In the predominately secular world we live in now, it’s good to see that once people believed in mystery. That a man could really be born from a virgin and heal the sick and raise the dead, only to be resurrected three days later after a cruel death. That a saint could walk half a kilometer without her head. That a 14 year girl in France could hear the voice of God and defeat the English. That salt water and a dream from a sun god can cure your raging case of Chlamydia (no I don’t have Chlamydia…in fact the Travel Doctor lady called me up before I left and said “Wow! You don’t have Chlamydia! Everyone has Chlamydia!”…ah travel doctor lady, you provide me with endless hours of entertainment and paranoia.)

Certainly in my own life, things have happened to me that I can’t explain through scientific means or maybe I just chose not to explain them. But I am certainly grateful for every twist of fate and every mishap or missed or badly scheduled appointment that turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
Kitty in Cadiz...I think he's agnostic.
It’s all very mystical and awe inspiring. That belief that somehow, if we were good people, honest, hardworking, paying our little money to the church, it would all turn out okay. Unless you were a witch, Native American, Phoenician or a Protestant, of course (for old school 18th century Catholics only).

Then you’re screwed.

Monday, October 4, 2010


Okay, I cruise. I know, its not like me to be a cruiser but I got into it after my first cruise.

My first cruise was for my honeymoon; it was around the Hawaiian Islands and as a bonus, we got to go to Kiribati (Fanning Island).

That was by far my favorite cruise because the whole concept of being on a big boat was new to me and I had an excellent travelling companion.

But I have found cruises have a diminishing return effect; the first is always the best usually and then it goes downhill from there.

This is my fourth cruise; I went to the Greek Islands/Croatia in 2007 and in Alaska in 2009. To be perfectly honest, I don’t really like cruises that much anymore. Sure it was exciting at one point but with the same type of entertainment, food and cabins, it gets a bit tiring. Plus you never get to spend as much time as you want to in one place (unless said place is Skagway). I spent more than enough time there.
The Roman version of AMI stadium.  When are the All Blacks Playing?

Honestly after the Alaska cruise, I wasn’t excited to return to a boat. But a couple things excited me about this cruise. The itinerary (Spain, Portugal and Morroco) just sounded cool…I’ve never been to any of those countries before and I really wanted to see them all. And it was a good excuse to spend some time with my parents. Mom and Dad like cruises; it’s easy for them and for me to find plenty of things to do.
Malaga streets

So far, the boat has been a bit of a disappointment but the destinations are anything but. We went to Malaga yesterday. Malaga is a beautiful portside city with a HUGE cathedral in the centre. The Moorish influence is clearly seen in the architecture and design of the place. We climbed up to the Citadel structure in the centre of town and got a wonderful panoramic view of Malaga and the surrounding area.

I enjoy the city; there are many little streets that open up into plazas, lovely little tapas bars and life everywhere. It was Sunday, so people were out in their Sunday best, having a drink after church.

One good thing about this cruise is its gym and spa. I go there every morning (YES I DO! I’M NOT LYING) and do a bit of a workout to start my day. I did yoga one day but found it hard to concentrate whilst gazing at the gorgeous Hungarian instructor who, I’m pretty sure, digs dudes. I mean, he’s that beautiful, he just has to be. Sigh…

Anyway, I did poke my head in at a singles event, I’m embarrassed to admit. I was more curious than anything; right now is the wrong time to gain a boyfriend, even for the length of a cruise. The only person there was an 60 year old Italian man who vaguely resembled an umpa loompa (Can someone please reference the spelling for me???). He saddled up to me and started speaking in Italian.

“No, signor, Americano.”

He used a hand gesture and walked off. Phew. I walked off quickly before any other Roald Dahl characters came my way (even Johnny Depp in a bob couldn’t keep me there…did anyone else find him creepy in that movie?).

The whole boat is filled with Italians; they dominate the boat. This makes this cruise, hands down, the liveliest, most chaotic cruise I have ever been on. There is a constant opera going on at the customer services desk. No one has a concept of lines or queuing (living in New Zealand, land of the organized queue, this can be quite frustrating). But the dance floors are always filled and there are actual younger people on the boat.

On a cruise, even though there are 3,000 guests, the same people pop up over and over. Like mullet body builder guy and weird accent lady who complains all the time (pretty sure she is English). There is angry old French dude, the kiwis from Auckland (why do I always get seated next to kiwis???) and the two Italian glamour grandmas. These people pop up every time I venture to the upper decks.

The ship itself is an ode to Italians; its gaudy as hell, with huge chandeliers, gold couches and marble floors. Not really to my taste but fun to try on, like those times you go to Ballanytynes or Macy’s and try on the sequin covered dresses or for the dudes, test drive a car you can never afford nor want to own.

Today, we went to Morocco but didn’t linger in Casablanca as we had an all day date with Fez, Morocco’s artistic capital.

After a pretty lengthy bus ride out there, when we got Morocco 101 by our tour guide, Abudullah, with our driver Muhammad "Cous Cous". Hilarious. Everyone was excited to explore the old city, where souks (markets) and craftsmen abound.

We entered the first souk, which was mostly a food market. The smell of meat and clotted blood was enough to cause me to hesitate but I thanked the many deities I pray to (hey it never hurts to get a second opinion) for my experience in Namibia. Namibia had prepared me for intense poverty, bizarre food, a total lack of health and safety and interesting hygiene choices. The smell reminded me instantly of Namibia and I carried on. Others in group struggled.

In the souks, you wouldn’t know if it was night or day. The small streets are like a black widow cobweb; completely without structure or logic. There are over 800 little streets in the old city and you can easily get lost in the mayhem.

All work and no play make Donkey a dull boy...
Depressed donkeys pass you by in the streets, laden with water bottles, tanned leather and large metal tanks. The donkeys are pushed, kicked, yelled at and generally mistreated by many of their handlers. Clearly, if you are a real asshole in this life, you end up reincarnated as a donkey in Fez.

Occasionally one would go on strike and end up alone, triumphant, with its load eschewed on top, but happy to be free, even for a few minutes.

In the souks there are so many cats and little kittens and the Fezites clearly have affection for their cats, as they feed them raw meat and small fishes in plates on the side of the streets and pet them lazily. Beggars also line the streets; Mom gives money to the women because the women often get beaten if they don’t bring any money home. Dad gives to them because he feels it his duty to aid the widows or other needy older single women.

The day is packed with visits to craftsmen and of course everyone is trying to sell us something. Of course we get ripped off but we decide two things. One: we only buy scarfs from the guilds and beautiful beaten bronze plates and in both cases are actually making the artwork there and not in China. Two: we figure that these people work pretty hard and well, we will enjoy the stuff we got.

So yeah, we got taken.

Lunch was excellent. It was served in the old Minister of Defence’s palace, which is now a restaurant. There was a wonderful local band playing local Morrocan music and delicious Moroccan cuisine that included cous cous, vegetables, meats, and wonderful spices. The wine was even good. Our guide, Abdullah, told us that the Morrocan muslims were very tolerant of all lifestyles, including alcohol consumption. They grow their own wine in fact and import it to France.
This picture alone makes me want to give up meat entirely.

After lunch, we visited the tannery. The tannery is unlike any place I have ever visited. We were taken up to shop where we could overlook the whole thing, which was exposed to the open air. We were all given sprigs of fresh mint to breath to mask the awful smell (kind of like in a morgue putting Vicks Vaporrun in your nostrils before the dissecting begins). Large round pots, the size of three men, littered the street below like a honeycomb. The pots were filled with different colored natural vegetable based dyes; reds, oranges, yellows, blues, purples and white. The men waded in the large pots, soaking the hides and swooshing it around the colorful water. The dyes are made from various local flowers, vegetables and herbs.

Several people struggled with the intense smell but I think it’s good to be exposed to what really goes on. I believe strongly that we have isolated ourselves too much from our food and the way our clothing is made and we rarely see the reality; the animal and human cost of what we consume. Going to a place like Fez brings us all back to earth and reminds us that someone suffered and animals die to sustain our lifestyle. Watching the men below waist deep in the heat and dust and colored liquids, covered in colors from the vats…many of these poor souls seem to have a permanent hunch from working there.

The Fez version of Haylar
We then went to the local weavers and purchased a few nice shawls. The souks are filled with small shops but we focused our attention on the actual makers of the product. We visit some ancient Mosques, which are amazing in the detail, age and design elements of the structures. Every surface possible has a design or an inscription. It’s a work of passion and a clear labour of devotion for the people of Fez.

Our final stop on our tour was the ceramic workshops, for which Fez is famous for. I wish I could buy and take things home to my new house but sadly lack of space in my luggage prohibits such luxuries. We watch the pottery being shaped; Fez’s clay is gray, unlike the rest of Morroco’s which is red. This helps the design, as blue glazes (another thing Fez is famous for) is applied. The designers have no pattern they follow; simply their own eye, the memory of designs past, and their own creativity.

The whole operation is filled with young men; not a single woman works there except to help us with the toilets and behind the counter. The men work hard on mosaics, creating works of art through micro destruction of tiles. Not a single worker was seen wearing safety glasses. Those workers who make mosaic pieces of many designed are especially vulnerable as they labor at chipping out the art pieces hour after hour.

We leave Fez behind and enjoy three hours on the bus; watching beautiful Morocco fly by. The place is dry but not like the Sahara; it’s a scrub land. The king planted forests throughout Morocco and now large trees dot the landscape in a neat grid like pattern.

The current king clearly has a fan in Abdullah. He recently made it mandatory for everyone in Morocco to go to school until age 16. He also banned polygamy and women now have 32 seats in Parliament (about 10 percent of the sitting body). The changes in policy mixed with the Moroccoan people’s eye for craftsmanship has attracted buyers and manufacturers in droves from around the world. The labour is cheap and the products are good quality, unlike other developing nations around the world.
The tannery at Fez.

Morocco feels pretty safe too but I wouldn’t want to navigate the Old City of Fez without a guide or at least some string to ensure I would find my way out of the small street mazes again.

We returned to the boat, tired, dusty but happy. The smell of the souks lingers in my hair and I wash it multiple times, wondering when I will get a chance to return and explore the dark nooks and crannies of Fez.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Topless Chicks (Welcome to the Rivera)

Nice is a beautiful little city, no doubt about it. You can see the wealth everywhere; people are dripping in Ferraris and Fendis…it’s like the last Sex and the City movie, a bit garish. In fact it’s a little too much wealth for my comfort actually.

On the black stoney beaches are four poster beds with mosquito nets hanging romantically from the tops. There is a lot of glitz and gold but it’s hard to feel any real heart of the city, unless you go to the Old City.

The Old City in Nice is where Italy and France meet and make everyone who loves one or the other happy. There are beautiful red, orange and cream building, tempting little alleyways, sidewalk cafes and little gilatorias everywhere. One the street is a man playing a violin and his partner is playing an acoustic guitar and singing. The restaurants are a lovely mix of Italian and French cuisine.

Mom and I eat a wonderful meal (Dad was sick in the hotel room) and for dessert, we went to the gelato stand. I had my favorite; cinnamon icecream. I first had it in Cinque Terra, in the Italian Rivera, three years ago and have searched for it ever since. It’s not a popular ice cream but its wonderful, creamy and spicy.

We sun ourselves on the black rocks and dip our feet in the water. It’s not cold but not particularly warm either. There are bevies of topless women everywhere and I feel dumpy compared to the tall, blonde and brunette tanned women laying out happily, revealing what god gave them. I feel like I’m the only red head for miles…

I fell like my style has always been pretty girly and not terribly sophisticated at times. I need to change that up a bit; I’m a divorcee (well for all intent and purposes, one more year to go!); I should dress in black more. Be more sophisticated…maybe take up smoking and cocktails (oops! Was that a martini in my hand? Already there!) and take a young Spanish lover named Jesus or something (maybe I’m thinking of another older divorcee…).

There’s nothing wrong with a bit of sex appeal but I’ve just either played up my cuteness (let’s face it, I’m not pretty or beautiful, I’m adorable, it’s a curse…) or played to other ehem assets. I’ve always been a bit of a “what you see is what you get” and on the low maintenance side (I haven’t blow dried my hair all trip.) But now I feel it might be time to wear eye makeup. Take up tango dancing. Saying less, listening more. Build a bit of mystery around me. The nice thing about traveling and about moving around a lot is that you can start from scratch again. You don’t have to always be who you have always been. You can be different. And maybe on second thought, blogging isn’t so good for the mystery…

Anyway, Nice is a good place to relax and just people watch. When you walk down the streets, you hear lots of different accents…a lot of American and pasty British people (my apologies to all my British friends, but you should all know by now that you are a pasty race).
My parents and I stayed in a student-esque hotel, with large holes in carpets and a dubious elevator that I secretly thanked all the deities I know each time the door creaked open (I took the stairs mostly). Thanks Pele! I know you only do volcanoes, but I appreciate you going out of your comfort zone for to get that elevator door to open.

Now, I’m usually a pretty unpicky person when it comes to staying places; I’ve slept in some very interesting locales and I try not to judge too much. But we paid a 100 euros for a pretty sad place. And it was with my parents…the fact that I picked the hotel, mainly on price and location, did not get me in the good books with my two favorite people.

But they took it in stride; Dad can’t get angry about that stuff, it’s not in his genetic capacity because it was cheap and Mom just laughed.

We got to the train station the next day to take, what we had read up on, was to be a three hour train ride. It took about 5 and half hours. At the point in my travels though, I can’t get impatient about anything anymore. I just can’t be bothered about those things. Plus the train ride was fantastic!

The Italian Med has much more to offer than the French one, hands down. Beautiful red, orange, pink and cream villas perilously perched on gravity defying rock formations. Little villages in valleys that end in golden, sandy beaches. The ocean is so clear; you can see the large stones metres down in the water.

And the language is beautiful…People always marvel at French but I have to say, I prefer Italian. It’s a language that speaks to me more; you have to use all of your mouth (lips, tongue, teeth…that weird flap of skin under your tongue) to speak it. It’s amazing the sounds that come out of the Italians mouths.

You can tell instantly the difference between Italy and France. France is all about QUALITY and sublime, perfected experiences over millennia. The cheese, the wine, the train stations, the buildings…there is an air of perfection and logic about the French systems. Everything works, everything makes logical sense. People know what is going on and they tell you, quite happily, if you don’t know.

In Italy, it’s not like that. Everything is a bit mad; there is chaos all over the show…but a chaos that everyone here understands and you don’t. The train stations are filthy and trains are rarely on time. It can be frustrating at times, but if you just go with it, it’s fine. There are no announcements on the trains about what the next stop is…you just have to wait in suspense, hoping that you can move you and your parents and all the bags out of the train car before the door shuts and you end of Rome or Milan.

But in the chaos is total calm, a complete surrender to the things around you. The Italians don’t really seem to be too interested in controlling much (except the Mob, they like to control everything). Things just seem to work, without too much fuss and new construction or toilet paper. Life just happens for them, easily. No wonder they annoy the French; the Italians make living a pleasurable life look so….easy.

I appreciate a good deal of chaos; it’s my nature. I thrive well in the unknown and unorganized. I like living unplanned mostly because I don’t trust plans at all anymore. I find that when I make plans, God or Pele or Shive or whoever laughs at me and completely changes them. So I have become an evolved appreciator of chaos. But I also appreciate hard work as well; I think in order to get something out of life, you should have to work hard at it. Nothing in life that was worth anything ever seems to be easy (at least for me) and honestly, I do enjoy a bit of blood and sweat now and then.

In Savona, I feel the same warmth in my dusty old heart that I did in Edinburgh; that sense of childlike wonder and pleasure of just walking down the street and taking all the sights in. I feel like I can breathe in this little, tiny seaside town nestled in a small valley, looking out at the ocean. It’s a place of peace and pleasure; the food, the sun, the sand and streets.

The food is wonderful; a passionate slathering of sauces, pastas…no dish, even ordered on the same day, the same thing, is ever the same. It’s all thrown together and somehow, it just works. Or not, I guess.

I remember in March I got the daft idea of taking a Med. cooking class with my friend Tynan*. Poor Tynan; we were so inappropriately matched cooking buddies. I hardly remembered any of the ingredients and just sort of throw stuff in, while Tynan, having been brought up a tidy and good kiwi boy, had everything ordered nicely (even if he did forget an ingredient or two. Hey nobody is perfect).

One time, he asked me for two table spoons of basil. I grabbed a hunk of fresh, crunchy, basil and threw it in his dish.

“Um…are you sure that was two table spoons?” He looked at me, a bit appalled.

“Sure, why not?”

Later I felt bad; Tynan probably wasn’t used to my Laissez-faire way to cook or my attitude, which has always been, with cooking, about having good ingredients, throw them together and see what happens. He had come here to learn and I was still just improvising my own thing, rarely reading the recipe, making huge errors all the time. I can be a pretty frustrating bitch.

It’s probably because I mistrust plans. I don’t have amazingly intricate plans about my life anymore, like trying to take over the world through the domination of the coffee market in Papau New Guinea (but now that you mention it, it might not be a bad idea…) or anything.

I think my philosophy now is to work hard, jump and hope I land on something soft. Preferably not just my ass, although its getting pretty soft because of all the pasta I’ve been eating! Maybe I should just subcontract my life to the Mafia; they might be able to plan better for me and only take a 15 percent cut…

*Name has been changed to protect the innocent friend.