A Travellerspoint blog

June 2010

Talofa Samoa!!!!

Sea, Sun, Sand and ... err... Samoans.

Howdy! Wow, it's been a while since I've been behind the old keyboard again! :) Feels like an eternity since I did that last blog entry in India, but here we are again. Today's topic, Samoa.

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Wow, what a country this place is. I'm so glad we didn't opt for Fiji now that we're here. This place is an unspoilt paradise island, full of fantastic smiling Samoans, some of the most welcoming people I've met around the world. Our arrival at Samoa airport says it all about this cute little island, we walk off the plane right onto the only runway, and see arrivals and departures about 5 meters from each other! :) This place is tiny. I thought Mauritius was small but with a population of only 180,000, Mauritius' 1.2 million seems positively humoungous!

We are met by Richard, our driver who takes us on the 1 hour drive from the airport in Apia to Sinalei Reef Resort, a beautiful hotel plopped right in the middle of some lovely gardens and the cutest most perfect little beach you've ever seen. Richard is a wealth of information on all things Samoan and we get the reality of the small population in our minds when Richard tells us he was part of the 2006 Samoan World Cup team. He further impresses us when he tells us his talents extend to music. Richard's story seems to have a familiar ring with other sporting celebrities in Samoa which we discover when we hear that one of the players on the (winning) national rugby team will be coming back from Scotland to resume his job as a taxi driver!

Our room is a self contained Fale, complete with a living room and monstrously large verandah that looks right onto the ocean. Bliss! After the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong, which I must confess I didn't like very much at all, this place is heaven. I'm determined to do as little as humanly possible while we're here, we're going to need the rest before our monster road trip through New Zealand and 4 day hike up to Machu Pichu in Peru in July.

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Our first day is spent in Apia town, milling about the market, buying beers to take back to our room (Samoa makes a mean brew called Vailima which easily rivals Mauritius' Phoenix) and chatting to locals. Samoans are really friendly, laid back people. They dont seem to have a care in the world and you'd never know the country has just begun to recover from a devastating Tsunami that destroyed most of the coastal villages in Upolu. Speaking of the Tsunami, you wont meet a single Samoan that doesn't know someone who was taken by the ocean that day. Even the manager of our hotel, Sosin, tells us the sad story of how she lost her sister in law and almost two guests from New Zealand. The devastation took most of the resort we are staying at in its wake and they've only just managed to get things back up and running.

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The next few days are spent doing what we planned to do all along on this island... relax. And boy do we relax in style here! Travelling from our balcony to the pool to the beach to the restaurant to the bar, it's a hard life I must say, but someone's got to do it :) The weather is a little unpredicatable, but that doesn't dampen our spirits, I like to think that being in the water when its raining is like having a bath and shower at the same time! We take little walks around the resort, the tide gets so low here you can literally take a walk into the ocean, little fish swimming around your ankles. Unfortunately the Tsunami killed almost all of the coral here so it's a bit sad when you look at all the grey sticks, wondering how amazingly colourful it must have been once.

We've taken to snorkelling and kayaking here quite a bit, the sea is a little tricky to negotiate both with or without a boat as there are very strong rip tides about, but as long as you're careful you wont get swept out. Despite the lack of living coral remaining in the sea there are loads of fish about, I spot some lovely little angel fish and a few ugly sea snakes. The one fear I have here is the stone fish. They are reportedly around the area and are easily mistaken for dead coral or stones. If you tread on one, their sting is deadly and gives you a very short timeframe to get to a hospital. We get chatting to a couple of Kiwis, Jo and Mel, who've just been out with the Lifeguard and they saw two of the little buggers swim right past them. The danger is real, but as long as we're careful we are assured that we will be fine by the hotel staff. Speaking of kiwis, there are loads of them staying at the resort which is handy for us as we get some good tips for our road trip coming up next week.

One thing about Samoa that isn't so convenient for Neet is the lack of vegetarian catering. The chef at the restaurant, Ernest, has been flown in from Holland to set it up (its only been open a week) and he is an absolute star, sorting out lovely meals for Neet. He's a michelin star trained chef, he was sous-chef at Le Gavroche for a while, and travels from country to country with his wife Pim working in restaurants and trying to elevate their standards. The food here is certainly good but he's having trouble with the Samoan staff pilfering all the food all the time! :) So funny!

The next day we hook up with our new friends Daniel and Nicole who have come here from Oz to get married. We drive out to a couple of beaches, including the amazing Paradise beach where the water is so clear you would swear it was an illusion. The sand is like powder and you sink into it satisfyingly as you walk along the beach. I love this place, it's the most beautiful beach I've ever seen, and an added surprise is a Reef Shark that we spot not more than 20 meters away prowling the shallow waters for an easy meal! Amazing!

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After the beaches we stop at a little pond reputed to have a family of turtles living in it. As soon as we arrive we spot them, there are loads of them, bobbing their heads up every now and again to take a breath. I love turtles, they're like the old grumpy men of the sea! Such a shame that they are still being poached for their shells. Stay strong fellas and keep laying them eggs!

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On the drive back to the hotel we spot all the locals dressed up in white going to and from church. The british missionaries must hold Samoa as one of their most successful endeavours because religion is absolutely EVERYTHING here. I am shocked at how everything in Samoan life revolves around the church and saddened when I hear that it is compulsory for village dwellers to pay 65% of their salary to the local church. When you consider that the average samoan earns 2 Tala per hour (about 1 US dollar) it seems criminal that the church makes this requirement of them. Nonetheless they are devout people and have no ill-will towards the tax-collectors. They see it as their duty, even going to the extremes of taking out loans to make donations to the church! Madness in my eyes, but again another great experience of life outside the western world. This is why we are travelling after all.

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The hotel organises a tour of the Island for us one day and it's really cool. We visit some villages and see how they make coconut milk and use the fruit for almost everything. It's so important to them and you can see why, it provides water, protein, fat and wood. Our driver, Sam, takes us to an amazing spot next. A lagoon with a little waterfall pouring into it where you can swim. Sam, the nutter, jumps in from the top of the cliff face, me and Neet walk in like sensible people. It's my first time swimming in fresh water and I love it! Bloody freezing though! :)

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Lalomanu beach is the next stop and the most eye opening as to get there you have to pass through the spots most badly hit by the tsunami. I couldn't believe my eyes, it looked like these places just got hit yesterday. Cars upside down, houses squashed flat like they'd been stepped on by a giant. Unbelievable. Out of respect I decided not to take any photos but it will be hard to forget anyway. Samoans bury their family members outside their homes, there are no graveyards here, and the amount of graves we passed on the way to this beach was just shocking. I pray that they never get struck by something like that ever again...

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Our last night in Samoa is the cultural night at the resort and we get a somewhat cheesy but all the same, fun demonstration of traditional Samoan dance and fire-eating. It's a nice way to finish off the trip and we can't say we're not rested up for our big trip to New Zealand. I'll really miss Samoa, the beautiful beaches, the wonderful people and the quality beer! It's just a warm and fuzzy place through and through, we love you mate... Alofa Samoa

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Posted by Gavness 22:49 Archived in Samoa Tagged events Comments (2)

Bonkers Honkers!

Hong Kong

25 °C

The arrival into Hong Kong is a shock to the system...after 2 months of dirt, chaos and mayhem it feels like we are wrapped in cotton wool in Honkers. Its SOOOO clean, everything seems to work and it is all very quiet. As we make our way on a perfectly tarmacced road to our hotel in Kowloon, we are both very quiet as we try to take in the scenery. Hong Kong is the polar opposite of India with order and organisation. It's somewhat unsettling after 2 months of lunacy...

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Our first day is spent catching up on sleep and then taking a stroll into town. We are super impressed with the effiency of the metro...how cool is the Octopus card? It is their equivalent of the Oyster card in London but it allows you to do so much more. As we ponder over which, the Octopus or Oyster came first, we make our way onto the streets and are stunned into silence. We stop more than once as we try to take in the big, tall, gleaming skyscrapers and shops some of which are literally dripping in diamonds and gold. Gav can't quite get his head around the amount of cash in this place and I can't get my head around what a difference order and organisation makes and have a new found respect for pavements! No one bumping into us, no cars hooting at us to make way for them, no cows, no goats, no elephants. Its just people on pavements, what a beautiful sight to behold.

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We spend the day exploring the city before heading back to Kowloon to see the Harbour Light Show at ther Avenue of Stars. When we get arrive there are two noticable things: firstly the number of people lining up their tripods for the light show, is seems like anyone who is anyone who has a camera must have a tripod and secondly (my fav) the music contest, we are not sure if its just some kids having fun with karoke or Hong Kong Idol either way it proves to be hugely popular and entertaining. The light show is a treat as the HK skyline is illuminated and the entertainment factor is cranked up even further as we spot a Previn look-a-like signing his heart out to Celine Dion on the Hong Kong Idol stage. We are still pretty knackered so its dinner and an early night for our first day.

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We spend the next day with a trip to Mongkok to check out the electronics shops and markets. As we make our way through the shops I'm not surprised at the pushy sales tactics but the rudeness when you politely make your way out of the shop not having bought anything. It is also quite amazing how everything is "original" Canon, Sony, Apple etc...even though the label is clearly fake and falling off. We go back to our hotel empty handed and a quick scan on the internet deflates us just a teeny bit more as we realise that Honkers prices are actually more expensive than what we pay back in the UK. All is not lost though since afternoon tea awaits us at the hotel. There are few things more special than (proper) afternoon tea and afternoon naps and luckily for me Hong Kong is big on the British tradition of afternoon tea. How pleasing to the palate are cute cheese and cucumber sandwiches, tiny little cakes and pastries and best of all scones with lashings of clotted cream topped with a generous helping of champagne and strawberry jam? Yummy! Yum! YUM!!!

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Suitably stuffed on sandwiches and cakes, we head back out to the mid-levels escalator. It is the longest in the world at 800 meters and quite a treat as we make our way up endless escalartors from the city through Soho and the higher levels of Hong Kong. Of course, what goes up must come down and since they don't have the world's longest escalator back down, its thirsty work and as we make our way down we stop in for a pint of Guiness at an English pub. Its the first one in a while and it has to be said it just isn't quite the same;(

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Dinner tonight is supposed to be at the Pennisula Hotel, however, we are refused entry as I am wearing sandals. We are both starving hungry and more than a little pissed off when we see a lady leaving the restaurant in her sandals. Nonetheless, their loss is someone else's gain as we head to a small Thai place near our hotel.

The following day is spent with more explorations. Gav has been looking forward to dim sum and we manage to get a table at Maxims. I unfortunately cannot eat much since there aren't really any veggie options, but its still fun to see people scanning and choosing as the ladies go round with their carts. In the evening we head to the night market and it is exactly what one would expect from Hong Kong. Stalls selling everything under the sun stretching as far as the eye can see down the street. We plod along from one end of the street, poking our heads into random stalls and picking useless rubbish that we happen to love. Its gone midnight by the time we finish and parts of the market are still going strong. It has been a real fun day and we are looking forward to tomorrow as we leave for Samoa.

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We spend our last day in Hong Kong going into town looking for some dodgy DVDs and CDs for our campervan in New Zealand. Our quest ends without any success as we can't find any dodgy DVDs or CDs!!!! We promise we looked in the dodgy side streets, pubs and markets but nothing. Feeling a little disappointed we head back to our hotel to collect our things and make our way to the airport.

Now I quite like Honkers, its what you would expect from a big city and since most big cities seem to be identikits of each other HK doesn't feel any different to London or New York. Sure the buildings are bigger and shinier but apart from that, you have the same shops, restaurants and bars. I liked it because I like the buzz of big cities, however, you do feel a little cheated when everything is the same the world over. Gav on the other hand didn't really take to Hong Kong that well, he feels that it is a little too sterile but I think anything would be after the crazy chaos of India.

We get a surprise when we get to the airport when we realise we have a day lay-over in Auckland before the connecting flight to Samoa. We also have to get our head round time travel since due to crossing the international date line we arrive in Samoa a day before we leave to go to Samoa! What a crazy life on the road:)

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Posted by Gavness 22:30 Archived in Hong Kong Comments (0)

Agra to Delhi

sunny 40 °C

After the lazy days in Pondi we have a stark return to reality as we make our way back to Delhi. We have a 2 am taxi booked to take us back to Chennai to catch a flight to Delhi. The taxi driver is a legend (yes another one!), it is raining very hard and the roads are flooded but dude is still going very fast. Every time Gav asks him to slow down he does a complete turn in his seat to face Gav which scares the brown stuff out of me. As we get into Chennai, I remember a story I read in the papers about how the drainage is really crap because the council doesn't clear out the drains which causes flooding when it rains but also a health risk as the sewers contaminate the water supply. My thoughts as we drive through the flooding are that basically this guy's gleaming white car is going to be covered in shit when we get to the other end. Unfortunately I'm not far wrong when we get to the other end.

We manage to catch our flight and then have a race to get to Delhi train station in order to get the train. The first thing that hits us when we land in Delhi is the heat. I know we keep going on about the heat but it is a dry heat which gets you the moment you step off the plane. We both prefer it as it does not zapp all energy out of you like the damp southern heat. Anyway, back to the big race and Delhi seems to have changed since we arrived a couple of months ago. There is a lot more traffic for some reason and our driver thinks that we will more than likely miss our train. We make it by the skin of our teeth and the next task is to find our seats. I have no idea how the train system works but luckily Gav does and manages to find our seats. We sit back and enjoy our last train ride....there's the two old men enjoying lunch together, its a lunch that makes your mouth water - curries, rotis, salads, pickles, then there's the children playing on the top berths and the parents just wishing for some peace and quiet, the chai-walla who comes round with tea every so often and every time the train stops you have the hawkers trying to sell the most useless rubbish in order to make a few pennies. Outside, the countryside is barren with the heat taking its toll on the people and the animals, everything is very slow. We love this country.

We get to Agra and the first thing that greets us is the smell, the second is our driver who takes us to our hotel. When we first started planning our trip we were not sure how we were going to get on in India so saved the Taj Mahal til last so we could leave on a high. As we make our way to the hotel the driver points out the dome of the Taj. We both look and are a little bit deflated with what we see. We drive a bit further the main dome comes into view and we are both stunned by what we see. I have been wanting to see the Taj Mahal for most of my life and I am completely over-whelmed. As we are shown to our room, I am sure the lady thinks I'm a bit lula as I am so over come with emotion that I have tears streaming down my face. I feel very lucky for the life I have and to be doing all the things we have.

We have an unbelievable view - right in front is the Taj and just to the right is the 'real' India. People living in cramped conditions, poor sanitation and so on. Even in all that filth we find things that captivate us, there's the people flying kites, the man who keeps pigeons and the prayer calls. Of course the thing that holds our eyes for hours and hours on end is the Mighty Taj. Gav books our trip for the next day. I won't go on and on but it is the greatest testament to love and we both absolutely adore it.

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I have been in love with the Taj Mahal since the first time I read about what Shah Jahan did for Mumtaz Mahal. Our adventures in India have only added to the images I have and I cannot wait to see it. We are up and about before the break of dawn since we don't want to miss a thing. Of course, it doesn't disappoint and I'll spare any description since nothing quite compares to how you feel when you are there. As if there was any doubt, I am totally blown away as Gav drops to one knee and pops the question. I couldn't imagine a more amazing place for this to happen, the image of this monumental accomplishment of architecture is one thing, but the story behind it is undoubtedly the most romantic of all time. WE ARE ENGAGED!!!!!!

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Once we leave the Taj, we are greeted by the numerous shop keepers trying to sell their wares. We have become accustomed to the hard sell so manage to leave unscathed. Our day in Agra is basically spent admiring the view and taking pictures.

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Our final trip in India is back to Delhi, we are supposed to be on the train but it has been delayed and we are notified that the delay is only likely to get bigger which will result in us arriving in Delhi the next day. We make a few calls and decide its better to make other arrangements since we can't miss our plane out the next day. We get a driver who takes us to Delhi and as you can imagine the trip is not without some very hairy moments. The drive is supposed to be 3 hours and because of the traffic ends up taking over five. We arrive more than a little worse for wear in Delhi after 3am, both slightly thankful that it is one of the last journeys we'll be making in India for a while.

Our last day goes very quickly with packing and last minute running around. As we make our way to the airport we have mixed feelings...We love this country but it does drive you more than a little mad. We've seen some amazing places which remind us of so many other places in the world, we've met some interesting people and hopefully made quite a few friends along the way. My lasting memory of India is from Pondicherry where I ignored a young boy selling his wares. As I looked into his eyes I saw an uncanny similarity to my nephew and of course once a personal connection has been made the guilt is unbelieveable. I looked for him for the next few days but couldnĀ“t find him until the tail-end of our trip. I got chatting to him and his friends and they were very eager to sell me some little bags which (apparently) had been stitched by his mum. We had a good old natter and I bought some stuff from them and sent them on their way with a drink. The image of the three super thin boys laughing and chatting with one hand carrying their wares and the other holding their drink is how I will remember them. I spoke with the owner of the hotel afterwards and I asked him what the truth was behind their stories and he said that they probably work for a gang and food is dependent on how much money they bring home. I know I probably did the wrong thing, but I am glad I did.

I think Gav says it best when he says that India has shown us both the best and worst in humanity. But what a place eh? Here's an extract from Gav's last musings on India from his journal, this really sums it up: -

"What can I say about India? In the two months that we've been here we've seen abject poverty and ridiculous wealth, poor hygiene and sanitation but touch screen ATM machines everywhere. Children made to work and beg next door to wealthy french government lycees in Pondicherry. We've seen beauty of all kinds. Temples, old, ancient and new. Dry arid landscapes in rajasthan, lush evergreen forrest in Ooty; Super-modernity in Mumbai, coal-heated irons and hand water pumps in Himachal Pradesh. We've seen rice paddies, wheat fields, coconut groves and bamboo plantations, rainforerst and cactus. We've seen weed growing in acres along the streets of the Punjab. We've seen crazy old men singing on push-carts in Pushkar, we've seen cows, goats, hawks, herons, snakes, toads, camels, elephants, water buffalo and monkeys, mostly on the roadside! :) We've seen compassion in people, anger fear, frustration but always a smile at the end of it all. We've watched bollywood movies in Jaipur, music and dance in Udaipur, sitar and tabla in Agra. We've had music lessons, we've had life lessons. We've learnt and we've taught. We've met locals and tourists. We've been scared, we've been confident, we've been sad, we've been happy... all in the same day. We've been loved and hated, felt at home and felt alien. We've met artists and musicians, hoteliers, politicians and professional footballers. Aloo Gobi to Masala Dosa, to pizza to McDonalds, to fine dining, to chinese food, from pure veg to carnivorous devouring, we've had it all. We've made friends, we've made enemies, we've loved and we've lost. Above all though, we've lived. We've truly lived in this place. India is in our blood now, under our skin and part of our soul..."

Now for the next stage of our adventure...

Posted by Gavness 20:09 Archived in India Tagged events Comments (0)

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