Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Day 6- Kona

One nice thing about going west for a vacation is that the time change actually works in your favor. Hawaii is three hours behind California, and as a result we've been getting up by 7:30 or eight every morning, which is nothing short of revolutionary in my case.

It was a particularly good thing that we got going early this morning, because Kona is the only port we have to take tenders into and that can mean major lines of irritable tourists, clutching their beach bags and making the same tired jokes about the Titanic.

After we made it to shore I called the lady at Enterprise who instructed us to go and wait in front of a nearby hotel, possibly because the port charges the rental companies for access. So we went there and eventually an unmarked van pulled up, driven by a guy with an indeterminate Eastern European accent, who drove us to a run-down strip mall. Where, in fact, the rental place was located, but I was worried for a minute there.

They were out of economy cars, so we were "upgraded" to a giant, gas-guzzling SUV. Just the thing for two people with a combined one cubic foot of baggage to drive in a place where gas costs $3.65 a gallon. Sigh.

So anyway, we boarded our tank, figured out our map and headed out of town to the beach we had chosen out of the guidebook. The landscape, at first, was not exactly promising. "Austere" would be the nice way of putting it. The highway cut across a huge lava field, parts of which looked frozen mid-flow but mostly looked like it had been recently bulldozed in preparation for a really enormous construction project. The cool part was the roadside graffiti, names, high school team bragging, and some rough pictures, which were picked out in white rocks and shells on any surface facing the road.

Then we got to the beach, and blah blah white sand, blah blah turquoise water, blah blah blah. You get the picture. (For those who don't, I'll post photos shortly.) Having learned from out experiences on Maui, which picked a spot in the sand under the shade of an overhanging tree-- one that, as I learned later, was in the habit of scattering tiny but very spiky twigs beneath it-- to lay out our towels. It was another windy day and the sea was too rough for snorkling, or even swimming really, so the best you could do was go in and let the waves push you around for a while. It was actually a lot like the ocean back home, only instead of being freezing cold it was pleasantly warm. Makes all the difference, really.

Aside from the occasional miscalculation of wave height that left me with an occasional face full of ocean, the only downside was that whenever I went into the water I got the song "Love is a Cannibal" stuck in my head. Which is bizarre; I don't even like that song. As best as I can figure, my brain really wanted to get stuck on "Love is the Seventh Wave" but, hampered by the fact that I don't actually know that song, did the best it could with what it had.

Having had our fill of paddling in the ocean and lounging on the beach, Megan and I piled back into the tank and headed back, for our last night on the boat on our way back to Maui.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Day 5 continued- Volcano Sail-By

In a shocking change of pace, tonight's event of intrest occurred on the boat ("The Super 8 of the Seas"). Or, more accurately, about half a mile away from the boat, because that's about as close as you can get to flowing lava in a cruise ship.

Actually, it was pretty cool. We were sailing around the southern edge of the Big Island, on our way from Hilo to Kona, and we passed by where the volcano is currently erupting into the sea at around ten in the evening. And even at that distance it was something to see, bright red-orange steaks of lava flowing slowly down into the black water, sending up huge plumes of steam that reached out all the way to where we were. It was the sort of thing that gets you thinking about the power and beauty of nature, or it would, if people's damn flashbulbs would stop going off in your eyes.

I mean seriously, flash photography? "Boy, it's a good thing I had the flash on my camera on. Otherwise this tiny picture of something half a mile away would be completely incomprehensible!"

I'm just glad we weren't in one of the places on the ship where you can only see out through plexiglas windows. Because nothing promotes a calm and healthful mindset like being repeatedly blinded by people who are having trouble grasping the concept of "reflection".

Megan and I had staked out a place on the bow, so we got a great view as the boat did a full 360-degree turn, so that everyone could get a chance to see. Of course, the second the view from our position started to slip away, everyone went charging around to the other side, so so much for that idea. We stayed where we were (the view of the night sky was amazing, with occasional shooting stars as a bonus), and were rewarded with the coolest view so far: one of the lesser vents, separate from the main field, suddenly sending up a fountain of lava. Thus proving that, while virtue may be its own reward, explosions are better.

The best story I heard about Pele was from the driver of the rental car shuttle who was taking me back to the pier. He was telling me about a town that was destroyed by an eruption a few years back, and he mentioned that there was a story about that.
"They say," he said, "that Madame Pele was hitchhiking in that town the night before, and no one would pick her up and give her a ride, except this rancher." (He said the names of the town and the rancher, but I have forgotten them both.) "He picked her up and took her where she wanted to go, and the next day the volcano erupted and destroyed the whole town, except his ranch. The lava came up and stopped at his property line. You can go and see it today."


Yep, it happened again. I'm back from my trip and I haven't finished with the blogging yet. Turns out, I was spending too much time having fun to write about how much fun I was having. You can just imagine how bad I feel about that.

Anyway, I'll try to finish this up over the next week, but the entries may get sketchier as time goes on.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Day 5- Hilo

Today’s Lesson: Curiosity may or may not have ever killed a cat, but it did make me eat the chocolate-covered squid.

Our first day on the big island, and Megan and I split up again. It’s not that we aren’t getting along but, having covered career, family and relationships and, politics and religion being off the menu, we were running out of things to talk about. Also, she has family in Hilo and I really wanted to go see the volcano, so we decided to go our separate ways.

My first stop was, of course, the car rental place. I’m starting to get good at the part where you walk around and look for dings, so they can’t bill them for you later. That settled, I headed off to my next task; to find a pineapple.

Specifically, to find a white "sugarloaf" pineapple, which I had read about once in a travel article and wanted to try ever since. Apparently, they only grow in Hawaii, mainly on the big island, and they are sweeter and less acidic than the usual kind, which sounds like a good idea to me.

I decided that the best place to look would be the Hilo farmers’ market, and for once I was exactly right. I found a guy selling the pineapples and he sold me one, possibly for a bit more than I should have paid, but oh well.

So, now I had a pineapple. Which, as you may or may not know, is unlike most other fruit, such as a pear or a banana, in that it is well defended and you can’t just sit down and eat it without the proper equipment. But we’ll get to that part later.

Pineapple secured, I made my way to Volcano National Park, about thirty miles outside Hilo. For whatever reason, this is something I have been looking forward to for the whole trip, so it was a bummer that I had so little time. The boat was leaving at six today, which meant we had to be back on board by five-thirty, which meant I had to be back at the rental car place by four-thirty, which meant I had to leave the park by three-thirty. Which meant I spent my whole time there checking my watch and rushing through things and generally being my least favorite kind of tourist; the one who hurries along, ticking sights off her checklist without actually ever stopping to see anything. Go there, do that, get the picture.

When I got to the visitor center, a ranger-led hike was just about to leave so, despite my reluctance to engage in anything enriching and/or educational, I decided to tag along. The ranger was maybe a couple of years younger than me, part Hawaiian, and very fond of the phrase "with that in mind". "And those are the three things ancient Hawaiians used this plant for. With that in mind, let’s continue down the trail." "And when they finally got the boy out of the steam vent, he had third degree burns over ten percent of his body. With that in mind, here’s an interesting kind of fern."

With that in mind, it was a nice tour, complete with two legends and some inexpert playing of the conch shell and nose flute. I hiked back past the sulfur banks, then got back in my car and did the driving tour around the rim of the caldera.

Volcano National Park may be the most accurate thing ever created by the federal government: it is a national park that is a volcano. An active volcano, in fact, although there were no eruptions convenient for viewing at the time of my visit. What there was were a huge caldera (big crater) with a smaller crater (crater) inside it, some lava flows and an old lava tube, plus various native and non-native plants and animals (not so interesting, as they are significantly less likely to explode). I thought it was all pretty cool, until I went to the museum and found out what I was missing. Apparently, for about a hundred years (ending in the twenties) the crater had been a boiling lake of lava, with red-hot fountains and everything. People used to have weddings there. By comparison, a hole with some steam coming out of it seems pretty tame.

Failing that, I think the lava fields were my favorite part; they looked like the remains of the world’s biggest barbecue pit and smelled like bad well water, but there’s something appealing about the idea of rocks that are younger than me.

Thanks to my hurried tour of the park, I got out of there with time to spare. Which was a good thing, because I still had a pineapple to deal with. I couldn’t take it back on the boat with me, because they have very clear policies about bringing produce on board, i.e., no. But, as noted before, eating it in its natural state was not an option, so I set off into the town of Volcano in search of a solution.

In the end, it didn't turn out to be that hard at all. I found a little convenience store, run by about four generations of Asian ladies and with a small lunch counter, explained my predicament and asked to borrow a knife (having bought some chips and a bottle of coke, because you don't like to just walk in and start asking for stuff without buying anything), and the nice lady behind the counter not only leant me a rather fearsome-looking one, but also some paper towels and a box to put the trimmings in. So I sat myself down on the steps in front of the store and took that pineapple apart, eating some pieces and saving the rest for later. I gave a quarter of it to the lady when I returned the knife, because it seemed like the thing to do.

The pineapple was delicious, by the way. I ate most of the rest, along with the chips and the soda, of it sitting in a grassy spot behind some kind of cell phone tower or something, and felt like I was travelling like me again.

As for the squid: I had a little extra time before I had to return the car, so I stopped in at the Big Island Candy Company, a Hilo tourist trap baited with chocolate. Their (clearly effective) business model involves being very generous with the free samples, which were almost uniformly delicious (the butter-free cookies being a notable exception). So I picked up a couple of items to bring back, and then I noticed the chocolate-dipped strips of dried squid.

You know how sometimes you see a food item that makes absolutely no sense, something that looks like just the worst idea but then turns out to somehow, mysteriously, be delicious? This was not one of those times. This tasted like dried squid, with chocolate on it. And neither component was improved by the combination.

Day 4- A little more Kauai

Today’s Lesson: No lesson today. We’re on vacation.

Aside from Maui, where we arrived, this is the only place we are staying overnight, and we have an extra half day in Kauai. Since the boat was leaving at one, we opted not to do the car thing and Megan and I split up to pursue our own activities. She went on a shore excursion to see the botanical garden, and I stayed behind to do approximately nothing. That is, I did get off the ship, and walked down to the mini-mall set up for the purpose of bleeding a few dollars out of the lazier cruise passengers (to lazy to even take one of the several "shuttles" to various shopping locations). But even I couldn’t find anything to purchase there, aside from a shave ice (lychee flavor), which I ate while walking along the wall above the little beach by the port. Then, because it was really too hot for even that much physical activity, I went back to the boat and sat by the pool (in the shade) and read.

I finished two books today.

Our one event of the afternoon was to sail by Kauai’s mountainous north coast, with its knife-edge cliffs and gorgeous, inaccessible pocket beaches, made oddly familiar because they shot some of Jurassic park here. Didn’t spot any velociraptors, though.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Day 3- Kauai

Today’s Lesson: Nothing is ever perfect, but sometimes you can get close enough.

Our third island in as many days, and I have to admit, I’m starting to get kind of dizzy. There’s something to be said for those long sea days between ports, with nothing to do but sit around and work your way through a couple dozen books. Of course, there’s also something to be said for actually travelling, as opposed to wrapping yourself in a cocoon of chaperoned security and walking slowly in long lines to wherever the nice man on the loudspeaker has told you to go. Something for everyone, I guess.

Anyway, we got to Kauai today, and I think it’s my favorite island so far. It just looks the way I think a tropical island should—huge green cliffs and funky little stores and pretty, palm-tree lines beaches, no giant walls of high-rise hotels lining the shore. Of course, we didn’t get that right away. One of the problems with travelling on a huge ship is that you have to arrive at the same point as all of the other huge ships, which is to say, a container port. Which, although vital to international commerce, are not exactly scenic wonderlands.

So we got out of there in pretty short order, on the shuttle to the rental car place and then in the rental car out to the northern coast. Along the way, we stopped to rent some snorkle gear and ran in to a woman from Berkeley. What is it with northern Californians around here? The dang things are everywhere.

The drive was, quite frankly, spectacular. Yeah, yeah, enough with the superlatives, you say, we know it’s pretty, why not say something interesting for a change? To which I reply, shut up. This is my vacation and I’m having a good time and I can be happy if I want to, even if it’s not funny.

Right. So the beach we chose was kind of tucked away, down a road with no signs past a lot of rental houses, any one of which I would be very happy to stay in or, possibly, own. But it was still pretty well populated, with bathrooms and a campground and a boat ramp that seemed to be getting a lot of use. Unfortunately, it also had some fairly high winds, strong enough to kick up waves on the pretty little bay and to make snorkling a pointless and somewhat dangerous endeavor (what with the part where you’re getting pushed out to sea and all. So that was out, but it was okay. We found a spot on the beach, in the shade and out of the wind and read and napped and watched a series of people engage in what looked like a completely futile activity, involving a small board and a huge kite, attached to the rider by about a hundred feet of line. We saw several failed attempts, including one guy who flew up out of the water and bounced at least once before landing, but there were several people who seemed to know what they were doing and zipped around all afternoon. All in all, it supplied some good entertainment.

So, sure, what with the wind and having to race back to return the snorkle gear we really didn’t need before the store closed at five, getting stuck behind a dodderingly slow driver and almost not making it, coming back to the boat through the diesel fumes and sounds of large equipment; maybe it wasn’t the perfect day. But it was still pretty darn nice.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Day 2- Oahu

Today’s Lesson: You get what you pay for.

There is an image of Oahu I want to remember. I’m sitting on the lanai, outside of the spa, having been massaged to within an inch of my life, sipping orange-flavored water and looking out at an ocean and a sky so blue that if I saw those colors in a painting I would think, "Eh, tacky."
I am focusing on this memory, because there is another one that is a bit more prominent; of me, crammed in the back of an overcrowded bus with a vent pumping hot air at my sunburned legs and sweat rolling down my back, listening to one of the world’s truly obnoxious people hold forth on his favorite subject—himself—for the second hour. And that’s not what I want to think of when I think of Oahu.

Our plan was simple. Megan’s dream Hawaii activity was to go horseback riding on the beach, and the Turtle Bay Resort on the North shore of Oahu offered just that. They also had a spa that offered massages, and I like massages. (I like horseback riding too, but since I have one back home that I can ride for free, and rarely do, I have trouble justifying paying a lot of money to ride one somewhere else.) You may wonder if it is a good idea to get a massage the day after you have received a severe sunburn; I wondered this too. It turns out that the good people at the resort spa have a certain amount of experience with people with sunburns and, in fact, being pampered and rubbed with nice lotion is exactly what you want in that situation.

Afterwards, I had my nice time sitting out on the lanai and then we went to lunch at the (extremely overpriced) café on the beach. Then, in our charming innocence, we went to catch the bus back to Honolulu.

It seemed okay at first. Sure, there was a crazy guy talking to himself at the bus stop, but that just made it feel like home. And the guy who was waiting for the bus with us did make a remark about him (the crazy guy) being strung out on crystal meth, which seemed kind of insensitive (and, according to Megan, probably inaccurate). And the seat was kind of warm, but Megan had been complaining about how the bus ride out had been too cold, so maybe this was an improvement. It’s only two hours. How bad could it be?

Well, the guy—from Texas, living in Hawaii, does "a lot of different things"—had no intention of falling into the bus-ride personal space cocoon that the rest of us were going for; he wanted to chat. First with me and Megan then, after switching seats, with a kid from UC Davis who was spending his summer working in Honolulu. We learned a great deal about the guy, his life, his kids, his opinions, his very rudimentary sense of humor. We also learned some about the kid, mostly that he plays rugby and has been enjoying his summer. Meanwhile, more people were getting on the bus, and then more, and then more, until it was shoulder-to-shoulder, standing room only, no air moving except what people were breathing out.
There was also a teenaged couple sitting near us who were apparently squabbling the entire time they were on—about half the ride. I managed to totally fail to notice them, which is one time when my lack of social perceptiveness has been a definite blessing.

We finally made it back to Honolulu and all but fell out of the bus. Megan and I had planned to go on to Waikiki, just to see it, but it was getting late and we were already tired, hot and cranky. So we transferred to another bus, this time, blessedly air-conditioned, and retreated back to the ship and our unlimited soft-drink cards.

But really, what I want to remember is that chair and that view and that soft, warm air.

p.s. On the subject of value for your money, I’d just like to say a few words about the service on this ship. Specifically, the service in the dining rooms on this ship. Even more specifically, the fact that it can take up to an hour to get your entrée, and no one seems exactly sure of what they are doing. This is in contrast to the other cruises I have been on, where you practically have to pry the waiters off the back of your chair and your water glass never seems to dip by more than a centimeter before being refilled.
People aren’t working here because they want to be waiters (or whatever), they’re here because they want an extended Hawaiian vacation, and waiting tables is just what they have to do to get that. So the service is somewhat less than stellar.

Day 1- Maui

I got a bad sunburn today. I blame Raymond Chandler.

Today was Maui, where we technically arrived last night, but didn’t really notice until this morning. Our visit began, as all tropical vacations must, at Walmart. We needed a few things, like lip balm and water and a hat and a power strip (our room, in a quaint, old fashioned touch, only has one outlet.)

Our chores taken care of, we piled back into the rental car and drove across the island, through some very California-esque landscape, to the western shore of Maui, which comes complete with palm trees, soft sandy beaches and blue, warm water. I’m still not convinced this is the same ocean we have back home.

We made a brief stop in Lahaina, a town positively bursting at the seams with cuteness, and also t-shirt stores, and then made our way to the beach recommended to us by my parents, who have been here twice before and are therefore experts. (See previous comment re: beaches for a description.) And this is where Mr. Chandler became a problem.

This year, as part of my ongoing quest to read the classics of detective fiction, I brought along The Long Goodbye as one of my books for the trip. So, when I got out of the lovely warm water after my nice swim I flopped myself down on my towel (recently purchased at Walmart, with a map of Hawaii on it) and settled in to read. And I was reading for a while, which probably would have been fine, except for the part where I forgot to put sunscreen on the backs of my legs. Or my back.

Today’s Lesson: Sunscreen only works in the places where you actually put it on.

But that particular downside didn’t make itself known for a while, which was a good thing, because there was snorkling to be done.

The snorkling spot was at the end of the beach looked small, and I was afraid that it might not be impressive enough to impress Megan, who was kind of dubious about the whole idea, but I needn’t have worried. There were triggerfish and angelfish and a bunch of other fish that I didn’t pick out on the card at the rental place, along with urchins and anenomies and brain coral that could win a Nobel. Megan was sufficiently impressed. In fact, I think I may have created a monster.

As the day was winding down and the sunstroke was starting to set in, we headed down the beach to the restaurant in front of one of the fancy hotels, for drinks and nibbles. (Well, I had a drink, anyway. Megan looked too young to be served alcohol without an ID.)

Saturday, August 12, 2006

And They're Off

(I want you to know that I am spending good money on internet access, so blogging may be kind of rushed.)

Well, we made it, after eleven hours in transit, only five of which were actually spent going anywhere. Getting there, when it involves modern air travel, really isn’t any portion of the fun.

Getting to the airport had an extra element of adventure, as our ride (Megan's friend Raquel) was under the impression that we were leaving from Oakland, rather than the more accurate San Francisco. Fortunately, we got it straightened out before we actually got on 880, though time constraints caused her to have to drop us off at the BART station. Which was entirely not a problem, because getting through security took all of about seven minutes. Plus a little extra on the other side, because they pulled Megan out for further searching, seeing as she is such a highly suspicious individual.

The Pride of Aloha is a US-flagged ship, which means it can sail around Hawaii without having to stop in at a foreign port, but it also means that it has to have an all-American crew, which costs more than the usual Caribbean/Eastern European mix. So I think that to remain competitive, they have had to cut corners in other places. Like the beds, for instance, which are highly ergonomic slabs of concrete, each with one thin blanket. Or the soap and shampoo, which come out of dispensers in the bathroom. But it's all good. After all, how bad could it be? We're in Hawaii.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

This is a fine kettle of NTSA-banned substances

As you may know, I am leaving to go on a cruise in Hawaii tomorrow (and, if you didn't know, you probably also don't care). I was planning on having it be seven days of worry-free frolicking, and I'm sure it will, but now it's going to be bookended by several hours of airport hassle, sans liquids, thanks to some stupid terrorists. I mean, really, couldn't they schedule their little mass-murder thing for a time when I don't have to fly out of SFO? Honestly. It's not like I even travel that much anymore.
And why is it always planes? Ooh yeah, blowing up an airplane; that's a new one. Not. Would it kill them to be a little bit more original with their suicide attacks? It's not like there aren't any other ideas out there. They could flood the San Andreas fault to cause an earthquake that would destroy Silicon Valley, so they can take over the world's microchip industry (hey, if it's good enough for Christopher Walken...). Or maybe they could do like in that one tv movie with Rob Lowe where the terrorists tried to steal a train full of nuclear waste to do something with. I think. It might have been Dean Cain. Anyway, my point is that I'm kind of annoyed that I'm going to have to get to the airport about four hours early tomorrow, and also that I didn't get a lot of sleep last night, so I'm kind of incoherent.

'Til tomorrow, then, when with any luck travel blogging should begin in earnest. Unless it doesn't.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Well this is just too cool for words

But I'll give it some anyway. It seems that one of my short stories has been nominated for an award, without me even knowing. Until now, anyway.