ASIA-PACIFIC TOUR: BURMA

Author’s Note: This is a series of selected highlights from two years (1986-88) of budget travel through 18 countries and a half-dozen US States – hosted all along the way by national and local YMCAs – from Samoa, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, and Papua New Guinea, to Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, The Philippines, Hong Kong, China, Macau,Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and back to the USA.

Burma-CIA_WFB_Map
The CIA Factbook

Burma – the “Modern Raj”. Remnants of the British colonial atmosphere permeated the place. Rangoon was so green – like a garden. And not much automobile traffic, air pollution or crowded streets like in Bangkok. The former British colonial capital  also has the highest number of colonial-period buildings in Southeast Asia, and a remarkably intact colonial-era downtown area.

Aside from the busy tourist areas, the place was fantastic – really appealing,  with a very laid back atmosphere. It was like stepping into the past, and the people were some of the friendliest and most genuine I had ever met. Very helpful, kind and gentle folks – and all English speakers! Another legacy of the British colonial rule.

My Burmese visa was good for only 7 days – so it was a whirlwind tour. Three days with YMCAs in the capital Rangoon and in the up-country city of Mandalay – Burma’s  second largest city. I really would have preferred more time in Rangoon and Mandalay instead of racing all over the country. It was a good trip, but thoroughly exhausting with all the rushing around.

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Reclining Buddha, Rangoon

Established under the British regime in 1897, Burma’s early YMCAs served mainly the British communities, and the educational programs were accessible only to those who could afford them. Since then, the YMCAs have focused on meeting the needs of the local people, including vocational training and educational programs that seek to empower all, especially young men and women to assume increased responsibility and leadership at all levels, while working towards an equitable society. 

In downtown Rangoon, I visited the 2600-year-old Sule Pagoda, an important religious, historic and political rallying site, and the Chaukhtatgyi Buddha Temple which houses one of the most revered reclining Buddha image in the country, and at 66 meters (217 feet) long, it is one of the largest in Burma. 

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Karaweik Palace  By Ralf-Andre Lettau, Wikimedia Commons

Dominating the Rangoon skyline is the Shwedagon Pagoda — a gilded stupa  also known as the Great Dragon Pagoda or the Golden Pagoda — is the most sacred pagoda in Burma, and is believed to contain relics of the four most recent Buddhas including eight strands of hair from the head of Gautama the Buddha. 

Also in Rangoon, on the shoreline of Lake Kandawgji, the impressive replica of Karaweik Palace, a royal barge is actually a concrete structure in the shape of two enormous golden birds from Burmese mythology, with a Burmese style multi tiered, ornate roof structure.  

Traveling north to Mandalay, I visited the scenic hill station Maymyo, built by the British as a retreat from the soaring summer temperatures, and then boarded a river boat for a relaxing float down the Irrawaddy River to the ancient city of Pagan. A rental bicycle was perfect for touring the surrounding plains which are home to the remains of thousands of magnificent and well preserved 11th and 12th century temples, pagodas and monasteries.

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Ox cart and pedicab

Sarongs, lassie yogurt, horse and bull carts, ornate temples, and pretty girls with powdered cheeks exuded a distinctive South Asian feeling, reminiscent of my time Sri Lanka.  The river boat also brought us back to the days of the British Raj – with the very disturbing protocol that seated all the ‘white’ foreigners in style on the upper deck – linen table clothes and all — while the local people were crowded unceremoniously into the dark and dingy lower deck. I was not even allowed to go down to say hello.

A desperately poor place, even the YMCA was forced to operate on the black market, and openly accepted my ‘street market’ currency. Indeed, I financed my entire 7-day trip with a fifth of Johnny Walker Red and a couple cartons of 555 cigarettes that I unloaded immediately upon arrival at the Rangoon airport to eager buyers for a substantial profit in the unofficial currency.

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Sunset over the Irrawaddy River

This financial windfall covered all my expenses in Rangoon, Mandalay and Maymyo, as well as passage on the river boat, my guesthouse in Pagan, the return trip to Rangoon in a hot and crowded share-taxi over the rough, dusty, and pothole-riddled roads, and the purchase of some of Burma’s famous lacquer ware for gifts back in Thailand.

Fresh tropical fruits were available everywhere for a mere pittance, and my favorite all-you-can-eat “Vegetarian Thali” (an assortment of delicious vegetable dishes) cost about 30 cents.

Stay tuned for Asia-Pacific Tour: The Philippines – coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.

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ASIA-PACIFIC TOUR: THAILAND

Author’s Note: This is a series of selected highlights from two years (1986-88) of budget travel through 18 countries and a half-dozen US States – hosted all along the way by national and local YMCAs – from Samoa, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, and Papua New Guinea, to Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, The Philippines, Hong Kong, China, Macau,Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and back to the USA.

Thailand-CIA_WFB_Map_(2004)
CIA  Factbook

As the New Year began, I drifted north along the timeless, castaway beaches and quiet island hideaways of southern Thailand — waking up by the sea with the early morning sunlight filtering through bamboo slats of my bungalow and shimmering on the water under wide blue skies. From Bangkok, I made my way through the northeast and finally to the northern city of Chiang Mai where the YMCA put me to work for a few months teaching swimming at their new youth camp in the nearby town of Lampun.

It was absolutely wonderful to stay put for a while and become part of a community. Welcomed by many new friends at the YMCA and in town — living practically for free in a stately old teak wood house considered by the locals to be haunted with the spirits of two brothers who had killed each other there some years ago — and therefore impossible to rent to anyone but ‘naive’ foreigners.

Songkran Festival” – Thai New Year — the time for cleansing and starting anew. In April, at the height of the hot season, everyone goes around dousing each other with water. It’s actually pleasant to be constantly cooled off – drenched on the hot afternoons, and it involves everyone – you can’t escape it. You just have to surrender to the fun and festivity.

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Akha mother and child

Trekking to remote ethic minority or ‘hill tribe’ villages, women adorned in high, ornate silver conical headdresses greeted us with big, red betel-nut-stained smiles, black teeth, and warm, loving eyes — naked from the waist up, a babe at the breast, and one or two others slung across the back. Our hostess emerged from the house, sweeping the dirt floor, wearing a skimpy black skirt. A number of younger women nearby were sewing handicrafts — all with heavy breasts ready for the multitude of kids in this tiny mountain village.

The men displayed a distinctly “back country” behavior – heavy drinking, smoking, domestic quarrels, good laughter – amid the harsh reality of life in the hills. The tribal groups typically practiced slash and burn cultivation to eek out their one harvest of mountain rice per year, denuding the hills almost completely of trees and filling the air with smoke and choking ash — with powdery, dusty soil in the dry season and mudslide flooded landscapes in the rainy season.

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Jim and trekking guide ‘Lek’

In these remote villages, my limited Thai language skills were not much help, as most spoke only their tribal languages. My trekking guide ‘Lek’ led us through rice paddies and incredibly beautiful mountainous country to a Kwo Min Tang Chinese refugee village settled by descendants of Chiang Kai Chek’s followers who never made it to Taiwan from China, but instead settled in this remote corner of northern Thailand – and still speak only Chinese.

Coming down out of the hills to a Lisu village, we took a bamboo raft down the Kok River to the Thai border village of Tha TonIn one Lahu village, the rats had eaten all the grain leaving nothing to eat or plant. To bring in some cash, the villagers had begun hosted overnight village stays for travelers, which also included smoking opium.

The Lisu and Lahu tribes typically cultivated the opium and sold it to the Akha tribes, who became dependent on the drug, often resisted sending their children to school, and tended to be poorer and generally in more difficulty as a result. The tribal women typically carried the heaviest burden — tending the fields, looking after the kids, preparing food and other housework, and trying to keep the house from falling down while the men drifted away in opium induced stupors.

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Staying with a Lahu Tribal family

One of the most extensive opium-producing regions of the world, The Golden Triangle is situated at the confluence of the Mekong and Ruak rivers where it spreads poppy fields across the mountains of three countries: Thailand, Burma and Laos. At the northern-most Thai border town of Mai Sai, I watched as Thai tourists eagerly crossed the the bridge over the Ruak River and into Burma for bargains in the riverside markets. All other foreigners were permitted to walk freely along the bridge, but only as far as the border, where we peered from a distance into a country that mysteriously barred us from entry. That would have to wait for another trip.

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Northern Thai Girl

The “long-tail” boat swept along the Mekong River to within spitting distance of Laos, and then back to Thailand where I enjoyed a refreshing swim and a good sleep – anesthetized by the sound of its flow past my riverside guesthouse.

Watching the late afternoon sun light up the clouds over Doi Suthep – the mountain overlooking Chiang Mai — it was killing me to have to say goodbye. Nearly six months in Thailand. But I had stayed too long, and didn’t want to leave my friends – so many friends. It would be easy to stay – having found some of what I was looking for. Soon, I would return.

Stay tuned for Burma (Myanmar), coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.

Asia-Pacific Tour: Malaysia and Singapore

Author’s Note: This is a series of selected highlights from two years (1986-88) of budget travel through 18 countries and a half-dozen US States – hosted all along the way by national and local YMCAs – from Samoa, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, and Papua New Guinea, to Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, The Philippines, Hong Kong, China, Macau,Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and back to the USA.

Indonesia_map
Source: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Two weeks in the west coast cities of Peninsular Malaysia were enjoyable, thanks to the wonderful YMCA staff in Penang and Ipoh who took me around. It seemed like we ate constantly – with great food everywhere, and with a distinctive Chinese influence. A fairly large Indian population is present as well, along with the majority ethnic Malay population.

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Tea Plantations, Cameron Highlands, Peninsular Malaysia By Will Ellis CC BY 2.0

On to Cameron Highlands in the center of Peninsular Malaysia. Taking in the cool, fresh mountain air, I hiked among the tall pines, through thick, moist bush and along the valleys and high rolling hills planted in neat rows of tea. Moving on to the capital Kuala Lumpur I stayed at the YMCA and near more great food in the section of town known as “Little India.”

But after a few days of the city’s hectic pace and modern shopping centers, it was a welcome release to wake up in my bungalow by the sea, with a cool stream gurgling nearby for bathing and monkeys in the trees trying to nail any passersby with well-aimed mangoes.

Panubaview
Pulau Tioman By Ferrazo Wikipedia – Public Domain

Pulau Tioman is a delightfully unspoiled island four hours by fishing boat from the southwest coast of Peninsular Malaysia. The people are gentle and wonderfully open to talk to. Based on the regionally unifying “Malayan” language, Malaysian and Indonesian languages are basically the same, so I was able to practice my recently acquired Indonesian language skills while in Malaysia.

It was one of most beautiful and mysterious islands I had seen since leaving the South Pacific. The forest so old, massive, and exciting. Just to stand in a wide empty bay, with clear water ringed with golden sands and granite boulders, and an ancient forest as the backdrop. Alone in the sunshine under the open sky with just the monotonous buzz of insects in the trees. Hiking over a jungle-clad mountain past water falls to the far side of the island, and coming down through breezy coconut plantations and into a traditional village setting was like walking back into the South Seas Islands lifestyle. 

On the cross-island trail — moving through the thick jungle with sweat pouring out, great monitor lizards swaggering off the trail, pythons in the trees, monkeys screeching and tropical birds calling – startled by a large cobra at close range. Cool waterfalls along the ridge refreshing an overheated body, and with lots of swim time in the sea – manta rays, sharks, schools of brilliantly colored fish and corals. And after each full day, returning home for supper with my Malaysian home-stay family – it was the perfect refuge.

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Summiting Mount Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo

At 4095 meters (13,450 feet) above sea level, Mount Kinabalu, located in Sabah, Malaysian Borneo, is Malaysia’s highest peak. The two-day climb requires one night on the mountain, then a predawn scramble up ropes and ladders to the summit for the sunrise over Borneo’s steamy mountains and valleys.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the mountain and its surroundings are among the most important biological sites in the world, with thousands of species of flora and fauna, including the endangered Orangutan and many rare carnivorous (insect-eating) plant and orchid species.

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Pulau Sipadon, Sabah, Malaysian Borneo

From the mountain, I retreated to the warm seas at Pulau Sipadon off the east coast of Sabah, for some world class diving in one of the richest marine habitats in the world. Rising 600 meters (2000 feet) from the ocean floor, coral reef life abounds along with deep sea fauna, such as manta rays, hammerhead sharks, and is a protected nesting site for sea turtles.

Singapore — where West meets East – a pleasant blend of Indian, Malay, Chinese and Western cultures in a modern and rapidly developing regional center of commerce. Happy, friendly people living in a clean, safe environment, with all the modern conveniences of the West, yet rich in the variety of cultures, and with endless choices of cheap and tasty food. The YMCA was ultra-modern with a nice swimming pool on the roof, and also served as a destination for my next shipment of personal medical supplies from the States.

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A stunning lineup in traditional Indian Saris

The affordable accommodation, great food, and fun and interesting new Singaporean friends from a variety of cultural backgrounds made the time fly, and nearly a month had slid by before I knew it. 

Pam and five other lovely Indian girls decked out in elegant saris escorted me to a traditional Hindu wedding. Jamaliah a Chinese-Malay, took me to Sentosa Island Resort and Singapore’s Botanic Gardens— the only tropical garden to be honored as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and Catherine, an ethnic Chinese and I enjoyed swimming, playing squash, and warm evenings in the park watching the Christmas lights under a full moon.

Someone told me there was a shortage of Caucasian models in town, and that the agencies were hiring. Many of the regular models had gone home for the Christmas holidays. So I had some photos taken and was soon out doing shoots for a modeling agency. It brought in a few extra bucks, but once again, sadly it had come time to leave – and I was on my way to Thailand!

Stay tuned for Asia-Pacific Tour: Thailand and Burma – coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.

Asia-Pacific Tour: Indonesia (Part Two)

Author’s Note: This is a series of selected highlights from two years (1986-88) of budget travel through 18 countries and a half-dozen US States – hosted all along the way by national and local YMCAs – from Samoa, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, and Papua New Guinea, to Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, The Philippines, Hong Kong, China, Macau,Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and then back to the USA.

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Fort Tolukko, Ternate Island, Maluku

From Bali, I headed to Maluku, the fabled Spice Islands of Indonesia – and what an adventure it was! Our flight was canceled (not uncommon in Indonesia), but a military transport plane happened to be available, and flew us to the Banda Islands for a reasonable price.

Sailing on a variety of local vessels through deep, indigo-blue waters, schools of dolphin playfully welcomed us to each new group of jungle-clad islands – brilliant green in contrast to the azure sea and sky. These islands are fascinating both in their astonishing natural beauty, and because of the well-preserved 16th century colonial forts and estates. Amid this splendor is a pervasive Pacific Island feeling, but with the distinctive flavor of Asia.

Traveling with Michelle, a young backpacker from Scotland, we climbed volcanoes, explored colonial ruins, wandered through steaming jungles dimly lit up with rays of sunlight slanting through the misty silence, dove in some of Jacques Cousteau’s favorite haunts, and beefed up on delicious food liberally spiced with cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon, for which the islands are famous. It was especially enjoyable staying with the local people in their homes. There was very little English spoken in these isolated islands, so it was necessary and rewarding to do it all in Indonesian language.

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Family Home Stay, Pulau Ay, Maluku

Continuing to the island of Java I visited YMCA youth development, education and leadership programs in the city of Yogyakarta, renowned as a center of education, classical Javanese fine art and culture such as batik, ballet, drama, music, poetry and puppet shows. We toured ancient temples and night markets rocking with loud music, mania and crowds – and with oddities like fried cow skin and steamed chicken brains (I didn’t know chickens had enough brain matter to eat!) and weird freak shows featuring dancing giants and dwarfs.

In Jakarta, a YMCA staff member took me for a hair-raising motorbike ride through the city – past the open sewers that line the sidewalks and streets, challenging the traffic and going up onto the sidewalks to get past particularly bad traffic snarls – leaving me pretty frazzled and well doused from head to toe in a layer of sticky black soot from all the automobile and motorbike exhaust. The distinctive divide between rich and poor stark, as we sped through poor urban neighborhoods – past people squatting, washing clothes and eating utensils, brushing their teeth, and shitting all in the same squalid river – and then past modern hotels and shining high rise office buildings.

Mount Merapi Yogyakarta
Mount Merapi, Yogyakarta, Java Island Crisco 1492/ Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA)

By train and then by boat, we sailed along the beautifully rugged Sumatra coastline to Padang for the bull fights, and on to the coastal village of Air Manus (‘Sweet Water’) and to a guest house run by the friendly old caretaker ‘Papa Chili Chili.’ A spectacularly scenic bus ride north of Padang brought me to the cool, easy-going mountain town of Bukittinggi where I climbed a 10,000 foot volcano – the most active one on Sumatra

Unlike Yogyakarta’s dangerously active Mount Merapi – spewing fire, smoke and ash – this Sumatran ‘Merapi’ (literally means ‘Fire Mountain’) was dormant – for the time being anyway, and was one of the three volcanoes surrounding the scenic town.

A thick cloud of steam moved in just as my companions and I summited the cone, causing us to nearly lose our way on the poorly marked trail along a perilously steep drop off. When we finally made it down, the park ranger (belatedly) told us of the potential danger on top – and led us to a gruesome color photo tacked to his bulletin board of a foreign climber they found three weeks after he went missing. He had probably become lost in a sudden white out, just as we were, but tragically had fallen to his death. Lying in a jungle puddle his face was gone, totally rotted away.

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Indonesian Sunset

I toughed out eighteen brutal hours by bus to beautiful Lake Toba a large natural lake occupying the caldera of a supervolcano in the middle of the northern part of Sumatra, but was content to skip overly commercialized Samosir Island in the center of the lake. About 100 kilometers long, 30 kilometers wide, and up to 505 meters deep, Lake Toba is the largest volcanic lake in the world.

My visa had run out, so my final days in Indonesia were spent basking in the quiet, local flavor of an obscure town far from all the tourists, where I enjoyed a fitting and wonderfully refreshing final evening – the sensual massage was like food to a starving man. She spoke not a word of English, but by then, I could ramble easily in the language. And like a bad habit, I was leaving again. But my last night in Indonesia simply added to the long list of outrageous experiences and fond memories, and a keen desire to return for more!

Stay tuned for Asia-Pacific Tour: Malaysia and Singapore – coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.

Asia-Pacific Tour: Indonesia (Part One)

Author’s Note: As a volunteer representing the YMCA of the USA, I met with YMCA leaders throughout the Asia-Pacific region and the USA to help strengthen cooperation among YMCAs for technical, financial and human resource development. This is part of a series of highlights from two years (1986-88) of budget travel through 18 countries and a half-dozen US States – hosted all along the way by national and local YMCAs – from Samoa, Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, and Papua New Guinea, and continuing through Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, The Philippines, Hong Kong, China, Macau, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, and then back to the USA.

Indonesia_map
Source: Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Canoeists silhouetted against the morning glow moved out into the river. Balanced standing, and paddling their long wooden dugouts – the original paddle boarders!  A beautiful flight from the chilly highlands brought us to the border town of Wewak, on the northwest coast of of Papua New Guinea (PNG) where we soaked up the welcome warmth of the sea.

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Tana Toraja, Sulawesi

Traveling with my brother Dave, the boatman steered us up the Sepik River to the village of Kambot – famous for its carved Story Boards. Wild, flat country, dusty and dry that time of year, and fortunately not too many mosquitoes. Staying in the village was very peaceful — bathing in the river, and the villagers were warm and gentle.  But the food staple ‘sago’ – made from the pith inside the trunk of palm trees was a bit lacking in substance and flavor, to say the least!

From Wewak, our plane arrived in Jayapura, the capital of the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya, where everyone on board promptly had their Indonesian visas canceled. Border disputes between Indonesia and PNG were common at the time, so my two-month Indonesian visa, obtained with considerable effort in the capital Port Moresby was instantly reduced to three weeks – just to spite the PNG authorities. I was politely informed, however, that I could simply ‘buy lunch’ for an  Indonesian immigration official anywhere along the way to have my two-month visa re-issued. Right…

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A Balinese Funeral Pyre

But just one night in Indonesia, and the distinctive music, sweet smelling clove cigarettes, pretty girls, good food, and cheap prices had us fired up for Asia! The Pacific is truly peaceful and beautifully simple, but the promise of Indonesia’s intoxicating cultural mix beckoned. My meeting with the Yogyakarta YMCA on the island of Java was not until the following week. So we set off to begin exploring some of Indonesia’s vast archipelago of roughly 18,000 islands.

Flying from Jayapura to the bustling city of Ujung Pandang on the southern coast of Sulawesi Island, we headed north by bus to Tana Toraja – a scenic mountainous area known for its boat-shaped houses flanked by rice paddies, and elaborate funeral ceremonies. But the roads further north were really bad – entire buses seemed to disappear into cavernous ruts. So we retreated to Bali for some beach time, swimming, good food, and a massage before Dave returned to the USA.

Bali was much more touristic, but offered unique and fascinating expressions of culture at every turn including cremation ceremonies featuring enormous, elaborately carved pyres paraded through town and then burned. Food offerings are piled high and carried on women’s heads. Families often need time to raise the money for such elaborate rituals, so the deceased would be buried and then dug up later when sufficient funds were available.  

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Climbing Mount Batur, Bali

The countryside was spectacular and great for hiking, with rushing cascades and sweeping arcs of rice terraces carved into the greenest hillsides. I often came across women bathing openly – as is the custom, and this simply added to the naturally beautiful scenes. I climbed smoky  Mount Batur, an active volcano that rises dramatically from within two calderas and a large caldera lake and then skied back down on one foot through the hot, fine ash using just one rubber thong (the other one had broken on the way up!)

Reaching the bottom of the volcano, I entered one of the heated pools hidden in shallow caves at the edge of the lake – and came face to face with a young maiden who promptly invited me in to share her bath and a shampoo – and then led me back to her village for supper and a bed for the night in her family’s home-stay. No one in the family spoke English, and as I became more proficient in the language, it was all becoming like something out of dream land.

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Bunaken Island, Sulawesi

After two fruitless visits to a local Immigration office – well dressed, practicing my language skills, and professing a keen appreciation of Indonesia and its people – I was told that if I returned the next day wearing closed-toe shoes, I would have my visa. Apparently, my Birkenstock sandals didn’t cut it, and the shoes in local shops were all too small for my big foreign feet. Fortunately, another traveler loaned me his shoes – and I had my two-month visa!

Stay tuned for Asia-Pacific Tour: Indonesia (Part Two), coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.

This Side of the Reef (Part Three)

Author’s Note: Every weekend was an adventure. Swimming and diving on the reef in the lagoon, hiking and camping in the cool, dense jungles of the island’s interior, eating bat stew on the rim of an ancient volcano, becoming lost in a blanketing mist while swimming in a cold, bottomless crater lake, outrigger canoe trips to uninhabited islands, numerous adventures by trail bike, romance in the setting sun, and night-dipping under the shooting stars. Too many social commitments, too much fun, too damn many women and not enough sleep.

A fisherman coming in from the reef
A fisherman coming in from the reef

Once a month, I joined a group of ‘expats’ for adventure trips off the beaten track for overnights on uninhabited islands, treks into the interior of the two larger islands to hidden crater lakes, ancient lava flows, or for special birding excursions. I loved exploring the wild and mysterious jungle, as well as the boundless, clear sparkling sea.

One of the more challenging expeditions took us deep into the interior of Upolu island following razor-sharp ridge lines past spectacular panoramas across the island’s backbone and down to the sea – bush-whacking through the island’s nearly impenetrable interior. At viewpoints along the way, we could see down to Apia, and across to the other main island of Savai’i, with tiny Manono and Apolima  islands in between – white crescents of surf breaking on the barrier reefs far in the distance. 

We were climbing Mount Fito, the tallest mountain on Upolu (3,600 ft.) and extremely hard going through the dense, ever-changing, tangled undergrowth and rugged terrain. I mopped up the rear, hanging back, listening to the distant singing of bush knives ahead as smoky rays of sunlight slanted through moss-laden trees, cicadas happily buzzing high in the forest canopy.

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Jim and Dave at Lanoto’o Crater

Reaching the rim of the volcano, the late afternoon sun lit up the huge forested crater. Pairs of elegant Tropic Birds – long white tail feathers flowing – rode the air currents inside the massive crater. As dusk fell, the trees came alive with huge bats or ‘flying fox’ (pe’a). In the waning light we hung our sleeping tarps while our guides blasted a couple of bats out of the sky, and made bat stew for dinner – tiny drumsticks of tender meat – not bad at all!

Accessible from the main cross-island road in the misty highlands, the trail to Lanoto’o Crater was a faint, rarely used track, shrouded by heavy clouds – dark, cool and damp. Scaling the steep, densely forested volcano, we slid barefoot down the precipitous inner crater wall to the perfectly round, emerald green lake below. Incredibly beautiful as it was mysterious and after a hard, sweaty climb up and a muddy slide down to the silent, misty shoreline, the cool water beckoned. 

Once while swimming across the lake, a heavy cloud cover descended, totally obliterating everything in sight. All was white except for the ripples of dark smooth water directly in front me as I swam. After momentary panic, I noticed my friends’ voices coming from somewhere on shore, and they guided me back to safety. On the way home, we flagged down a bus-load of well-padded women returning from a picnic who pulled me up to dance with them in the aisle – squashing me with their huge bodies as the weaving, top-heavy wooden bus lumbered around tight mountain curves. I was lucky to survive that one!

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An entire roast pig filling the back of the jeep

The endless summer continued in full swing with my brother Dave’s visit – closing down raucous night clubs in Apia, trekking, swimming, diving, and visiting YMCA rural clubs (kalapus) in remote villages throughout the country.

We enjoyed tons of incredible food served by village girls seated before us fanning the flies away as we ate, followed by Samoan cocoa or the ceremonial beverage kava – a relaxing psychotropic concoction made from the root of a plant in the pepper family. Wonderful stuff that tastes like dirty dish water, but soon numbs the mouth, face and then the whole body. We endured the seemingly endless ceremonies, speeches, and tortuous hours sitting cross-legged on the floor, and returned home with Dave sharing the back seat with a huge roast pig – one of the many generous gifts from the villagers.  

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Diving at the Apia town waterfront, with Mount Vaea in the background (1985)

At the time, there were no commercial dive operations anywhere in the country. But one of my friends had tanks, and the fire station had a compressor to fill them. At points along the coast where the surf was not so strong, we would hop over the reef for some ‘virgin diving’ in amazingly clear and wild waters teeming with sea life large and small.

Particularly memorable was the time I took a paraplegic friend for his first scuba dive. Jerry was from New Zealand and was in Samoa conducting research on services for the disabled in the Pacific. We suited up, wrapped Jerry’s weight belt around his ankles to secure his legs and he held tight to my stabilizer backpack while we descended together for an awesome dive. Jerry wrote about the experience later as part of his published study, describing how much the scuba diving had meant to him, including the wonderful liberating feeling of weightlessness underwater.

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.

This Side of the Reef (Part Two)

Author’s Note: As a YMCA volunteer in Samoa (formerly Western Samoa) from 1983-1986, I experienced some of the highest, lowest, most frustrating and exhilarating times of my life. I was in love with the people, the place, and captured by the challenges and rewards of this work.

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YMCA National Headquarters, Apia

Samoa was a fascinating introduction to a totally different kind of YMCA work than I had ever seen before. The traditional YMCA programs of physical education, youth clubs and camping were almost non-existent. Instead, the programs responded to locally defined social and economic development needs and priorities as perceived by the people themselves, and collaborated with other local organizations, government, and international agencies to meet these needs.

Founded in 1978 with the assistance of the New Zealand YMCAs, the National Headquarters of the YMCA of Western Samoa was located in the capital and only city of Apia. The local Rotary Club raised $10,000 for the construction of the YMCA headquarters facility, consisting of a large open meeting room with attached office, classroom and kitchen. The main fale (Polynesian house with no walls) was built in the traditional manner entirely without the use of nails. Instead, twine woven from coconut husk was used to bind the beams together.

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Evening Training Program in a YMCA Village Club

YMCA programs focused mainly on rural development, vocational training and youth development in Apia, and in 40 village YMCA branches throughout the country. Leadership training seminars and field practicums covered topics such as farm management, small business management, marketing and credit unions. The YMCA Sales and Marketing Program helped local communities find overseas markets for their produce, and organized competitions to encourage increased crop production. Cash crops included taro, the starchy root staple consumed locally and exported to Samoans in Australia, New Zealand, and the USA, and kava, a mildly sedating and culturally important beverage consumed widely throughout the Pacific.

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Carpentry and Building Construction Training

Trades training programs in carpentry, construction, furniture sales, and motor mechanics prepared young people for jobs in town, while vocational skills development for self-employment were promoted in the rural areas. Weight training and aerobics classes were offered along with a popular Social Survival Skills course to help prepare Samoans who were planning to move and settle in New Zealand for school or for work.

As the YMCA Public Relations Officer, my first assignment was to produce a newsletter by April which was four months away (high stress!) and I quickly realized the need to slow down and put any overly ambitious hopes for swift and immediate progress aside. Most importantly, I worked closely with my local counterpart at the YMCA, who would assume my responsibilities when I finished my assignment in Samoa.

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Village tollgate and a determined toll collector

Traveling to villages around the country on a Honda 185 trail bike, I gathered stories and photos for the YMCA newsletter, ran youth programs, and enjoyed long, lazy lunch hours free-diving at Palolo Deep Marine Reserve on the outskirts of Apia, with fresh fish and chips, bananas, papayas, taro and palusami (baked taro leaves filled with coconut cream) washed down with a couple of young coconuts. It was my favorite refuge from the ‘fishbowl’ intensity that a small place like Samoa can sometimes feel like to a foreigner.

My job at the YMCA was really fantastic. But I  needed to work at relaxing more, and learn how to roll with various challenges, and the slower pace of life in general. So, whenever I was exhausted or just frustrated from taking my work too seriously, it helped to simply stand out on the far reef and shout into the wind – unleashing my pent up fury at the top of my lungs – relieved and recharged as my anguish merged into the thundering roar of the pounding surf.

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YMCA Urban Youth Group

Samoa is a small place, and I was able to involve the YMCA in various collaborative efforts with other local organizations. With the Ministry of Health and other community organizations and businesses, the YMCA helped establish the first National Health Fair,  which is celebrated each year on World Health Day. The event kicks off with a ‘fun walk’ and includes free medical and dental check-ups, general health education on topics such as nutrition, sanitation and first aid, and a poster-making contest for the kids.

With the Samoa Red Cross Society, and the Ministry of Youth, Sport and Culture, the YMCA helped establish the first National Red Cross Water Safety Program in Samoa, and assisted an International Youth Leadership Camp involving young people from 14 Pacific Island nations. The YMCA also helped organize the annual Special Olympics and Games for the Disabled, and took the lead in establishing a National Suicide Awareness Campaign to address the epidemic of youth suicide that was spreading across the Pacific at the time.

Stay tuned for Part Three, coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.

This Side of the Reef (Part One)

Author’s Note: It was dark and raining as the plane approached the island. Through the gloom I could see some flickering lights of a village clustered along the shoreline, but nothing else. I shuddered with the thrill of excitement and some apprehension as this was my first trip to the South Pacific and the start of a 3-year stint with the National YMCA of Western Samoa.

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The plane landed and we were told to remain in our seats. When they opened the door a flood of hot, damp air enveloped us. A man entered the plane and while walking down the aisle began spraying the cabin with some unknown white chemical. I tried not to breathe as the mysterious cloud of mist floated wetly down onto our heads. I learned later that treating all incoming passengers with insecticide this way was standard practice. Disembarking at last, I walked across the tarmac to the airport terminal and a tiny arrival hall lit by dim, greasy lights. A girl in uniform checked my passport, and I officially entered Pago Pago, American Samoa.

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South coast of Upolu Island, Samoa

Outside in the darkness, a throng of heavy-set Samoans lounged against a barrier that seemed on the verge of breaking under their weight. While waiting for my connecting flight, I noticed the sharply rugged mountains that towered ominously in the shadows above me – shrouded in ragged clouds and mist. It was a cold, damp place, and I was glad to board the plane for the short flight to Western Samoa, where I was met by one of the YMCA staff.

Two of my four pieces of luggage had been lost somewhere along the way, so we loaded my remaining bags into the minivan, and began the long drive to town – past what seemed like villages and homes, but I could not make out much in the darkness. There were few lights, and I could only imagine what this mysterious island I had just landed on looked like. A light breeze was blowing, the air was soft, moist, and remarkably fresh – and again, I began to shiver with excitement as the whole long-awaited adventure was finally beginning to unfold.

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Fishing on the Apia town waterfront (1984)

The YMCA National Headquarters was located in the capital and only city of Apia. Compared to the back villages, Apia’s 35,000 people seemed like a bustling metropolis. In fact, it was more like a small town, with slow-motion traffic jams at rush hour, two-story wood frame buildings (tallest was six stories), live music and dancing at night clubs in the evenings, movie theaters, ice cream parlors, fish and chips stands, grocery stores, plus many small shops and a large open-air produce and fish market. A “fast” photo shop developed prints in 24 hours! Several historic downtown churches added to the town’s picturesque waterfront that formerly served as a whaling port for the early colonialists.

Three days after my arrival in December 1983, the YMCA closed for six weeks for the Christmas and New Year holidays, so I had ample time to begin learning my way around – at first by bicycle, making it up the steep incline to the Mount Vaea trail head for the short but steep climb to the summit where Robert Lewis Stevenson is buried, and for the fine views over Apia town area and out to sea – white crescents of surf breaking on the barrier reefs.   

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Falefa Falls on the main coastal road, Upolu

Palolo Deep Marine Reserve on the outskirts of town quickly became my favorite swimming and luncheon spot. A simple wooden platform and open fale perched on a small island of reclaimed land made from coral rocks at the edge of a spectacular open area of deep water in the inner lagoon – it was like swimming in a giant natural aquarium stretching far out to the barrier reef that protected us from the open sea.

It was at Palolo Deep that I learned how to use my rubber thongs not only as protective foot gear for walking on the reef, but with no place to safely leave them while swimming, they made excellent hand paddles – one of the many practical Samoan ‘lifestyle habits’ that I carry with me to this day, especially when swimming in coral seas. It quickly became apparent that anything left unattended on the beach – or anywhere else for that matter – had a reasonable chance of ‘walking away’ by itself.

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Cooling off in Piula Pool

Piula Springs was perfect on hot afternoons. The 24-mile round trip bicycle ride along the scenic coast was a stretch in the tropical heat, but well worth the effort to soak in the cool spring water flowing from a cave right at the seashore. Diving down into the dark cave, a distant spot of light marks an underwater tunnel leading to another cave further back where you surface in another hidden pool!

Stay tuned for Part Two, coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory,  here and here.

A Visit to an Island Paradise (Part Two)

Author’s note: Weekends with my aiga (extended family) on Manono Island were excellent opportunities to practice my Samoan language skills. My hosts spoke no English, but were exceedingly patient and had a wonderful sense of humor – often roaring uncontrollably with laughter at my efforts to learn the language – which I eventually succeeded in doing.

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Manono and Kirisimasi

Living in Samoa brings one close to life – and death. Babies are born at home. Chickens and pigs are raised, then slaughtered and eaten. Fish is caught from the sea and other delicacies are gathered daily from the reef at low tide.

Sunday mornings, we were up well before dawn to build the umu (rock oven), scrape coconuts and squeeze the shredded coconut meat through the husk into cream. I held the torch while my brother Malie knocked a pig out with a few well-aimed rocks to the head before finishing the job with a pipe pressed across its throat. 

After singeing the hair off in the fire, we scrubbed and scraped it clean. I held the carcass steady as Malie slit the belly and then thrust his hand into the warm gut to rip out its contents, including the heart and liver, which we wrapped in banana leaves for the oven.

Stuffing the cavity with dry leaves, we covered it with hot rocks along with taro (starchy root), palusami (young taro leaves filled with coconut cream and fresh vegitables), bananas, and fish wrapped neatly in woven coconut leaves and covered with large green banana leaves to bake. 

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Malie scraping coconuts to squeeze into cream

Manono Island is a prime example of tropical beauty and unspoiled Polynesian culture. For the most part, people live as they have for thousands of years, with the addition of one significant influence – the Church. Since 1830, Christianity has become a central part of Samoan culture.

Each village has at least one church. Everyone goes to lotu (worship services) each evening and twice on Sundays. Women dress up in white hats and puletasi (full-length dresses). Men wear white shirts and lava lava (a skirt-like wrap-around).

Kids sit together in church under the watchful eye of an adult parishioner wielding a long switch poised to quiet a fidgety youngster. The faife’au (pastor) reads scripture and delivers a thundering “fire and brimstone” message in the tradition of the early missionaries. In full and perfect harmony, the congregation sings hymns accompanied by a small organ. Monetary offerings are announced in church – a real “keep up with the Jones” obligation to the church.

Lotu-a-Tamaiti (White Sunday or Children’s Sunday) falls on the second Sunday in October and is as big a day as Christmas for the children of Samoa. It is the only day of the year that the children get the best food, eat first, and enjoy tasty deserts at home. To’ona’i (mid-day feast) is prepared by the adult family members and served to the children – a complete role reversal. As usual, the best and largest portions are given to the faife’au (pastor) as a meaalofa (love gift).

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Children’s Sunday

The children lead both Sunday services (morning and evening) singing songs and performing skits. At lunch, women offer their breasts to the babies – so, as we feast on baked pig, taro and fish, the little ones get mother’s own freshness.

A Samoan fale (house) typically has very little furniture, or anything else for that matter – except a boom box, for news and music. Mats woven from locally grown flax cover the floor for sitting, eating, and sleeping – and although I brought gifts (soap, basic medicines, etc) whenever I visited my aiga, even special items like swim goggles and a fishing knife for my father Uila would be gone the next time I visited, having already been given away to someone else.

Apparently it is more honorable to give your possessions away than to accumulate things. On the other hand, sandals left unattended or clothing drying on the line might just walk away. Whenever I ran into someone wearing one of my shirts (or my sunglasses, etc), I would be politely assured they would be returned – and even laundered. Otherwise, they were gone.

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Jim and Emi on the beach in Manono

Uila told me he had 14 children, but every time I visited there were new faces, others missing from the gathering, someone else pregnant, etc. It was not uncommon for family members – young children included – to move from one extended family household to another as circumstances dictate, including unmarried daughters to the pastor’s house – presumably for safe keeping.

An interesting phenomenon in many parts of Polynesia is mo’i totolo (sleep crawling) whereby secret rendezvous are managed by sneaking under the raised floor of your sweetheart’s fale and poking a stick through the floor slats, then sneaking down to the beach together – romance in the islands! 

Stay tuned for more stories, coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory, here and here.

A Visit to an Island Paradise (Part One)

Author’s Note: As a YMCA volunteer from 1983-1986 in Samoa (formerly Western Samoa), I enjoyed weekends with my adopted Samoan aiga (extended family) on the tiny island of Manono, one of the four inhabited islands of Samoa known also as “The Cradle of Polynesia”. While some things have changed since then – notably electricity – otherwise, much remains the same. Here is a taste of what life was like in those heady days on my favorite South Pacific island paradise.

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Arriving at Manono Island

The trip from the larger island Upolu took 30 minutes and cost 50 sene (25 US cents). The small, extremely weathered wooden boat was overloaded with people and food – including a sacked pig or two. There was barely enough free-board to repel the swelling seas.

Rain was coming down in buckets. Someone calmly bailed while the boat threatened to nose-dive in the next trough. Amazingly, we did not go under. It was comforting to reflect that these waters were within the protection of the reef – which reduced our chances of meeting a shark.

As the boat approached the tiny island, half of the passengers hopped overboard to haul the soggy vessel through the shallows to a rock jetty. Palangi, palangi (name given to white people) came the excited cries of half-naked children gathering around – some brave enough to venture a quick touch of white skin or golden hair.

There are no roads, cars or dogs here. A sandy path lined with flowers and tall, sweeping coconut palms follows the coastline, and it takes just under an hour to stroll leisurely around this tranquil island. The place is Manono Tai, one of the four inhabited islands of Samoa – the legendary birthplace of Polynesian culture and language, in the middle of the South Pacific.

My Samoan Aiga - a family photo (1984)
My Samoan Aiga – a family photo (1984)

There is a battery operated telephone box on the island, but it hasn’t worked for some time. One of the four villages that dot the coastline has electricity generated by a petrol generator. Power cuts off at 10:00 PM nightly.

Frequent rains provide fresh water for the approximately 600 inhabitants of this lush, tropical island. Messages broadcast on local radio alert the islanders whenever someone is coming for a visit. 

Fales (houses) are traditional Polynesian open construction, round or oval and have high peaked roofs of woven leaves or tin, and have no walls. Food is cooked in an umu (rock oven). Toilets (faleuila) are outhouses perched on stilts over the beautiful white sand beaches. As the tides come and go, these ‘toilets’ flush twice daily. 

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Jim, Emi, and Gary, dressed for church

In one village, a winning Fautasi (longboat) is enshrined in a special fale along with its trophy until next year’s races. Nearby, children play kilikiti –  a Samoan version of cricket.

In the evening, the fishermen take their outrigger canoes out to the reef. The women in the open fales – seated cross-legged on the floor – are weaving mats from dried flax, preparing food, or just chatting. Gravestones in front of many fales are reminders of family members who have gone before.

Presenting our customary oso (food gift), we are invited to malolo (take a rest) after our journey from the capital city Apia, before being fed our own food plus heaps of taro (starchy root) boiled bananas, coconut cream, palusami (coconut cream and fresh vegetables baked in young taro leaves), breadfruit, baked fish, pork, chicken, eel, octopus, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, and Samoan cocoa. Seated cross-legged on the floor, we eat with both hands, as is customary in Samoa.

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My Samoan father, Uila, with two of his grandchildren, Fala and Kirisimasi

Seated in front of us, the kids fan the flies away and will eat after the adults are finished. Pleasantly stuffed, we are each given a pillow and a woven mat, and join everyone for an afternoon nap, a sheet hanging down the middle of the fale – men on one side, women on the other. 

Lounging in the main fale by the water’s edge, gazing out to sea, the cool breezes are soothing as light rain falls on the tropical greenery all around.

Samoan life revolves around the aiga (extended family group) and the enduring tradition of Fa’a Samoa (the Samoan way of life) is the dominant social force. Strong obligation to the aiga under the patronage of the matai (elected head of the family) ensures security for its members in return. 

Uila, the pulenu’u’ (village mayor), asked me to be his son, along with Gary, a US Peace Corps volunteer. Our friend Emi, a young Samoan police woman, was also adopted into the family.

Stay tuned for Part Two, coming soon!

You can read more about Jim’s backstory, here and here.