- Galapagos -
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Bright Lights big city describes Tokyo better than any phrase I could think of. The evening train journey from the airport to the hotel seemed endless; endless buildings, endless hordes of passengers, endless arrays of neon light, advertising and billboards. Tokyo is home to more than eight million people and covers a vast area, the prefecture is home to upwards of twelve million people. Very little remains of old Tokyo, architecturally it is an extremely modern city with an extensive, efficient though at times confusing public transport system. The streets are crowded and the sidewalks are more so, due to the fact that pedestrians share the sidewalks with bicycles. We spent several days wandering the streets, avoiding bikes and people; seeing the sites and acclimating to Japan.
At the top of most people’s sightseeing list is the Imperial Palace and Garden, located in the heart of Tokyo, the palace itself is not opened to the public (except by prearranged tour) and only a small section of the extensive gardens are opened. The palace, although mostly rebuilt after it was destroyed by bombing during World War II, is still an impressive site. Sitting on a hill overlooking an extensive park and surrounded by a moat on all sides, the palace commands the landscape. The east garden is opened to public and is a wonderful escape from the noise and bustle of the city. A traditional Japanese garden with many interesting features, especially a small stream, waterfall and pond as well as the immense walls of the original palace.
If one was to ask me what I thought the national past time in Japan was I would have to say it is a toss up between shoppingand eating. Japan is consumerism at its most developed, there are advertisements, stores, department stores, malls, designer stores and boutiques, everywhere in the cities. In Tokyo people seem to be constantly on the move except for when waiting in long long lines to enter newly opened or trendy stores. Ginza, Shinjuku and Shibuyu are the main shopping areas and each has its own unique identity, catering to specific section of Tokyos’s population. Competing for space with the shops are the restaurants and cafes. They are in train stations, malls, on the street and these are good restaurants with high quality food, not the usual fast food poor quality one would expect to come across in such places.
If eating and shopping are the national pastimes of Japan, Sumo Wrestling is its passion and its pride. Our time in Tokyo coincided with the Autumn Sumo Tournament, sumo tickets are not cheap and they become very expensive if you wish to sit near the ring so our tickets were rather high up in the stands but still afforded a clear view of the action. Sumo is an extremely ritualized sport, from the entrance of the participants to the tossing of rice powder to the four corners, drinking of water and the ritualized posturing and stamping before the action begins. Sumo wrestlers are separated into different categories according to experience and skill, the days fights begin with the least experienced and lowest ranked Sumo and progress to the highest ranked. As the matches progressed the stadium began to fill. The low level bouts were followed by the entrance ceremony for the mid level sumo wrestlers and then for the highest ranking wrestlers. These wrestlers wore the traditional Sumo kessho-mawashi, an apron like garment that displays their colors and are woven with many threads of precious metals thus they cost upwards of 10,000 dollars. Each of the top ranked Sumo wrestlers are introduced before their match and the flags with the titles they have won as well as their sponsors names are paraded around the ring. Most of the matches we watched were over very quickly with the victor forcing his opponent out of the ring usually in under two minutes. It was a unique and exciting experience and well worth the expense.
A trip to Tokyo would be incomplete without a visit to the Tjukisi Fish market. It means an early start as most of the action at the market is over by 9 am. Tjukisi Fish market is the central distribution hub for fish all over Tokyo, Japan and beyond. In these enormous warehouses with narrow walkways between stalls you stumble upon row after row, aisle after aisle of a seemingly endless variety of edible fish and seafood, it is simply astounding. Some are easily identified, the large tuna, the octopus some are harder to identify the Geoduck and some are just impossible to identify, for me at least. One wonders how there are still fish in the sea if this seafood selling extravaganza takes place six mornings a week, fifty two weeks a year.
Another Tokyo landmark, Yoyogi Park is famous for its alternative culture, on the weekends this lovely park is filled with young people hanging out, families picnicking, and musicians putting on shows. The sidewalks around the outside of the park have different stations set up where musicians come and perform live, selling their CDs and passing the hat. The performances range from Rockabilly to Pop to acoustic numbers to Japanese hip hop. Though most were not to our taste the spectacle was well worth the subway ride and the walk. Across the street from Yoyogi Park on the weekend we were in Tokyo was an Indian Cultural Fair, there were live arts demonstrations, music, food stalls and tourist information booths with colorful brochures about destinations all over India.
In Tokyo we discovered Daimaru for the first time. Daimaru is a chain of department stores located throughout Japan and they are much like any department store in any country with one exception. Daimaru, and most major department stores in Japan, have a food department. This is like no mall food court or ready packaged food section of an American store; this is an entire floor, sometimes two, dedicated to the glorification of Japanese food, sweets especially. The Daimaru in Tokyo is possible the most amazing as the Japanese sweets section is on the ground floor at the main entrance, with the non sweets, pastries, sushi, a grocery with $63 cantaloupes and $30 apples, bento boxes and much more on the floor below. Japanese sweets are seasonal works of art and in Daimaru they are displayed as such, each different company has a separate counter where they display their creations to their best. We spent more an hour wandering, pointing, gawking and trying the free samples offered by some of the counters. After discovering Daimaru we spent many happy times in other Daimaru in other cities all over Japan, it was also helpful that in Daimaru many people speak some English thus enabling us to ask questions and get answers instead of just smiles.
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After our adventure we boarded another bus , this time to Suva with a change of buses and onward to a stop on the side of the road just past a bridge it was here that we would meet a boat to take us down river and out into the ocean to the small island resort of Caqalai.
Caqalai is a small island of the Lomaiviti group of the eastern coast of Vitu Levu. Run by the Methodist church this resort is basic and rustic with bungalows scattered beneath the coconut palms and separate cold water showers and toilets. It is a place full of warm welcomes, smiles and music. Meals are included and communal and there is a daily volleyball match, people even come from other islands by boat to take part. Every evening during dinner there is live music from the resident band, Fijian traditional songs interspersed with other more familiar tunes played on several guitars and sung in chorus. The diving and snorkeling here are spectacular and the dive shop is run by an extremely helpful husband and wife team. This is a piece of Pacific Island paradise, a place to walk barefoot in the sand, swim among the fish and be serenaded by guitars.
Only a one hour boat ride from Caqalai is Lavuka a small town on the island of Ovalau. Here the colonial era buildings are nestled along a strip on waterfront with a backdrop of lush green hills. The buildings however are not what one would expect, they look more American West than English or Pacific Island. Clap board stores, cafes, pool halls and library are all made from American Pine timber that was used as ballast for vessels coming to Fiji. The people of Lavuka are mixed indo Fijians, Fijians and Chinese but they all seem to coexist peacefully. It is a town of church fairs and friendly smiles and everyone seems ready to say Bula.
The rerun trip to Vitu Levu was a wet and bumpy one but on the bus to our next destination we quickly dried out. VoliVoli is a beach near the town of RakiRaki and we stayed two nights at the dorms of this flashpacker. It is ideal for hanging on the beach or taking out a Kayak, just check the tides first. VoliVoli is also a place to go diving and if our budget had allowed we would have. After VoliVoli we returned to Fi and Api’s house and had a chance to look around their village a bit more. The children were very friendly and curious and accompanied us on all of our wanderings. After breakfast the next morning we headed to the airport for the next leg of our journey, Japan.
- Fiji Caqalai Island-
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Arriving to Fiji in the middle of the night we had prearranged a taxi to take us to Fiona and Api’s house in Viseisei. Couchsurfing again in the small village of Viseisei near Nadi, our host Fiona is a travel agent and her husband Api is a drummer with a band at one of the nearby four star resorts. They were kind enough to give up their bed to us. The next day, Fi helped us to organize our short trip and they also let us store some of our luggage under the bed in their spare room, making our trip that much easier.
The bus ride from Viseisei to our first stop was Nadi was another learning experience. In Fiji when the bus stops it is then and only then that a passenger who wishes to get off will get up and begin to make their way to the door, every country is truly different. We stopped in Nadi for a brief look around and to purchase some snorkels before boarding a minibus to Pacific Harbor and the Uprising Resort.
Uprising is a hostel and resort all in one better known as a flashpacker. It has upscale bungalows and beautifully manicured gardens a private beach and a good restaurant, as well as a well appointed and large dormitory with separate male and female facilities. Pacific Harbor is located on the southern coast of Vitu Levu, the main island of the Fiji islands. The main draw for us was the opportunity to participate, as observers, in a shark feed. We were lucky enough to find a place at the last minute (there was actually only one place but the captain gave us both permission to come).
- Fiji Shark Dive!!! -
Beqa Adventure Divers operates up a small river from the town of Pacific Harbor and from here you are ferried to Shark Reef for two separate dives. The first dive takes you to 30m where you will see the expert shark feeders feeding giant trevally, surgeon fish, snapper, grouper, white tip reef sharks, black tip reef sharks, lemon sharks and bull sharks. There is a slew of activity as the fish and sharks swarm around the feeder but all the divers are lined up behind an artificial wall and protected by handlers with long poles. The safety stop for this dive is along the edge of a shallow 4 meter reef. Looking out over the reef holding on to the edge there are maybe a hundred smaller black tip, silver tip and white tip reef sharks. Amy was positioned next to the feeder and at one point a small black tip made it way between them weaving its way like a cat. It was quickly replaced by a handler who moved Amy a little further from the action. The second dive was to 17m and this is where the show truly began. Here there were more bull sharks; some seemed absolutely enormous that was until she came. A female Tiger Shark of more than four meters, pregnant, beautiful and amazing, the adjectives keep on coming. She came early on in the second dive and stayed until we had to go to our safety stop before finishing the dive.
This experience is well worth the expense and the company was extremely professional, employing all Fijian divers, handlers, feeders and office staff. The fish they use to feed the sharks are remnants from the tuna processing plants in nearby Suva. If you have a fear of sharks this is a way to overcome it because you see the magnificence and beauty of these creatures up close. We cannot recommend the experience more highly.
After arriving in the ferry terminal on Upolu Amy and Turgay both took a bathroom break and thus missed the buses to Apia to catch a second bus to Saleapaga, so we took a taxi instead. This saved us many hours of travel time and allowed us a side trip to the Togitogiga Falls. This series of waterfalls is located in a park that is part forest and part manicured lawn. Being the dry season there was no water in the falls, not even a trickle. Arriving at our destination, FaoFao Beach Fales in Salepaga, in the early afternoon there was just time enough for a good walk on the beach and to dip our feet in the ocean before dinner.
To Sua Ocean Trench can be found nearby Saleapaga, the taxi to and from cost about 15 Tala and the entrance fee to the park was 20 Tala (10 Tala per person) for a total of a 35 Tala or 11 US Dollars. It was the best spent 11 dollars so far this trip. It is a spectacular place, a deep blue hole where the tides come in through a tunnel creating a slight ebb and flow in this wonderful swimming hole. Floating on your back in crystal clear turquoise water, you look up at walls of volcanic rock covered with ferns and bromeliads, as clouds drift across the sky above. Also in this park are many tide pools and walking paths along the rocks near the ocean’s edge.
After dinner on the second night at Fao Fao we were treated to some Samoan dancing by the wife and daughter of a village chief who were there with their family on vacation. Sharing a taxi with a peace core worker the next day we returned to Apia and prepared for our onward journey to Fiji.
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Arriving via ferry into the port town of Salelologa, a Samoa public bus awaited for the trip to Manase. Bus riding in Samoa is a unique experience; people actually stack themselves on top of each other. As the bus fills up people begin to sit on each other’s laps in order of oldest to youngest on top. Foreigners are given their own seats (but Amy did have a child on her lap most of the trip). After the laps have been filled people begin to stand in the aisle, packing goods in along with them, stereos, boxes, groceries, etc. When a person wishes to get off they pull the cord that rings a bell, after the bus stops everyone in the aisle files off, they wait for the person to get of and then they file back on. What Amy found so interesting was that one person would get off and sometimes maybe 60 or 70 meters later another person would pull the cord and the whole process would start over again, but without any grumbling from anyone.
Regina’s beach Fales, a family run set of beach fales with 3 set meals, in the town of Manase was reached with out incident but with a lot of stacking and stopping. Fales are small bungalows sometimes wood clad but generaly using traditional woven mats as walls. They usualy lack electricity for most of the day and the meals are fixed and eaten at set times. They foster a sense of community among travelers that one would be hard pressed to find anywhere else. While staying in a fale you feel no guilt over doing nothing but reading a book, staring at the ocean waves all day and chatting with other travelers. The most memorable couple we met in Manase were Peter and Kaye Forwood, who have been traveling the world for 12 years on their Harley. When we met them they only had 2 of the 192 countries recognized by the United Nations left to visit. You can read about their adventures on their blog at http://harleyforwood.com. We also met a wonderful woman,Julie from Australia, who had come to volunteer her time in a school on Upolu and was taking a break before she headed back home. We gained a greater insight into the society and culture of Samoa through her stories and experiences.
Our time at Regina’s was the most relaxing part of our trip so far. We did take a day off from relaxing to go diving on a reef wall and a wreck with nearby Dive Savai’i. The wreck is the remains of a late 19th century English vessel, the Juno, that was bring missionaries to the island, it originally ran aground on the reef and everyone escaped unharmed but it has sense sunk to a depth of about 22 meters. The highlight of the wreck dive was the chance to see an electric flame scallop with two cleaner shrimp; it looked like a shrimp disco with the scallop pulsating red light and the shrimp boogying down.
There came a point during our time on Savai’i when we thought we should see some more of the island, so we shared a taxi back to the port town of Salelologa and checked into Lusia’s Lagoon Chalets. Here we booked a tour, with Safu Tours, Warren a geologist who has lived all over the world, gave us a great tour and insight into the geological past of Samoa. With Warren we saw volcanic sea arches, the Alofaaga blowholes, Lovers Leap, and the Tafua Peninsula Rainforest Reserve where while looking down into the Tafua Savai’I Crater; we spotted the rare Samoan flying foxes. The next morning we boarded the ferry and made our way back to Upolu.
Places to Stay in Savai’i
- SAMOA -
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Samoa is beautiful group of Pacific islands with a population of about 180,000 people, full of warm smiling faces and slower pace of life. It is a country not without its problems, it is supported largely by remittances sent back by family members working abroad and aid from governments and NGOs. Samoa has very little industry and a very high unemployment level, as well as strict codes of conduct and an almost stifling sense of religious obligation. However despite or perhaps because of this sense of obligation to family and clan, Samoa is a friendly country, with well kept gardens and clean streets where people still take the time to say hello.
Apia is the largest town in Samoa, with a population of about 40,000 it isn’t the Pacific paradise people expect when traveling to Samoa but it has its own charm. The time in Apia coincided with the annual Teuila Festival; which features traditional music, dance, long boat races, a parade and a beauty pageant. Watching the long boat races from the shore with a crowd of Samoans as they cheered and urged their teams on was an experience with everyone competing for the shade created by the trees lining the shore. The parade was a display of Samoan beauty with both international and local winners of the Miss Samoa beauty pageant on display.
Just outside of Apia is the Palolo Deep Marine Reserve, this shallow protected reef was established in 1974 to protect a small area of reef along the coastline. The shallow reefs extends for about 70 meters before a sudden drop off, here the walls of coral are populated with a diverse variety of fish species. This “blue hole” is about 10meters deep and 200meters in diameter. It is a great snorkeling spot and well worth a visit (if you don’t have your own gear you can rent some there). You can also find changing rooms, showers and bathrooms as well as picnic facilities inside the reserve along a small beach.
From Apia the adventure continued with a taxi ride to catch the ferry to the island of Savai’i.
Places to Eat and Stay in Apia
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