Sunday, February 9, 2020

Samoa with Maria: Day 3

On day three, we intended to hop on and off the bus to visit a variety of landmarks around Upolu. We had both done quite a bit of research on the Samoan buses and understood that they make a constant loop around the (basically circular) island, and there is no predicting when they will come, but if you hang out by the main road long enough, you can flag one down. Alright, simple enough. Well, when we told our Matareva hostess of our plans, she was horrified, saying we'd have to take at least three different buses in order to get to just the first of our several stops. Then she explained the we could sign up for their "Adventure Tour" which went everywhere we wanted to go, plus a lava tube. This was the first of many experiences we had in Samoa when someone seemed extremely helpful and knowledgeable about a system that didn't made sense to us, but also their suggestions benefited them, so we while we wanted to trust them, it was hard to be certain. (The longer we spent in Samoa the more convinced we were that these people were too nice to mislead us, and I continue to believe/hope that that's true.) In this case, the price for the tour was very reasonable, and fighting with multitudes of unpredictable buses sounded awful, so we decided to do it. And we're so glad we did, because the tour was definitely a highlight of our trip, in ways that doing those things on our own, even if the bus plan had worked perfectly, would not have been.

We got in the van in the morning with a group of strangers, who by the end of the day felt like friends. We were accompanied by a man and two boys (perhaps 12 and 16) who were members of the family who owned Matareva Beach Fales. We assumed that the man was our tour guide, but soon found out that he didn't speak English, and the two boys would be showing us around. They were hilarious and enthusiastic tour guides, with unorthodox but very entertaining methods, and I'm so glad we spent the day with them!

First we walked through some amazing native bush, with all kinds of incredible flora...

... to arrive at a lava tube. Our tour guides told us that it's not on any websites or maps, but they'd like to make it more well-known in conjunction with their fales. It was too dark inside for pictures, but it was amazing in there, although extremely hot and humid (so much so that you could see the water in the air in the flashlight beams). There was also condensation on the walls, and when it beaded up on top of some kinds of lichen it glittered like gold. Our tour guides explained that people would shelter in these tubes (which are miles long) if there was a natural disaster, and showed us a grave deep inside it. They didn't know the story of who the person was, but you can imagine hard times. 

Next, we headed to Savaia, where there is a Giant Clam Sanctuary.

Having no underwater photo-taking ability, I am reduced to internet photos, but I can assure you that this is exactly what these clams looked like! Unbelievable, right? They are amazing! The ones that colour were mostly about 120cm (47in or almost 4 feet) long. And we learned that if you drop a rock on it, it will shut on it, then jettison it out with a jet of water! Click here for an underwater video around the sanctuary (apologies for the annoying music) and here for more information about endangered Giant Clams.

Also, bonus - sea turtles live there too! Unfortunately Maria and I were not together when another tourist pointed one out to me, so she didn't get to see it, but I swam near it for several minutes, and it was amazing! There are places in Samoa that specifically advertise swimming with sea turtles, but they had mixed reviews on how happy the turtles were about coming into a confined space with people, so we decided not to go. But meeting this one in its natural habitat was so special!

Next, we headed to Togitogiga Waterfall.
(A note before I continue: In order for Anglophones to pronounce the Samoan 'g', it's helpful to imagine that it has an 'n' in front of it, as it sounds much like the end of 'ing'. So this waterfall is pronounced as if it was spelled Tongitonginga. I find this very cook, because keeping it in mind as I read Samoan made me much more able to find overlap between it and Māori.)
This beautiful waterfall was not only visually stunning but very adventurous (as promised by the tour name). We spent a little while swimming around the freezing water at the bottom (a welcome change from the heat of the day at first, but really too cold for extended enjoyment) and challenging ourselves to swim against the current to get near the bottom of the falls.

Then Walter, the younger of our tour guides, showed us how to climb up the side of the falls and where to jump into the pool. (This is a stock photo, as we were much too busy adventuring to take any.) On the left, you can see people jumping from one place we jumped from, but above them you can also see a little fence - we also climbed up and jumped from there. It was much more exhilarating, because you had to make sure to jump as far out as possible to make sure you cleared the lower ledge. It was not physically challenging to do so, but added an extra sense of adventure.

Our last stop of the day was to To Sua Giant Swimming Hole. Rather than regurgitating the information from this information panel, I thought I'd just include it - if you click on it, it should get big enough that you can read the words.

The whole area surrounding the swimming holes was very beautiful, although we explored very little. If we read the map right, this is the area where the lava tube connected to the swimming hole joins the ocean. Plus, look at that lovely little pool in the middle of the volcanic rock. Stunning.

This is the picture we took of the more open side of the lava tube. It was a bit overcast when we were there, for which we were very thankful, as it kept the temperature at a manageable 30C (86F), but it did mean that the colours of the water were a bit muted. It might also have kept some tourists away, because we were extremely lucky to find it mostly empty and ready for our exploration, whereas I've heard it can be quite busy.

Just for comparison's sake, however, here is a photo of what it looks like under full sun. 

This is looking back from the smaller of the two places where the roof of the lava tube collapsed. It was pretty exciting to swim through the tube part - I have a rather irrational fear of dark water, so I did take a deep breath or two before striking out into the tunnel, but it was worth it, and unsurprisingly, no sea monsters attacked me at all! Plus the view was amazing! So that's a win for adventure.

This is looking down at that smaller pool from on top. I wish I could find a picture of looking up out of it, because seeing the light filtering down through all that lush greenery (and especially the ferns) was really special. 

As I mentioned, the lava tube is connected to the ocean by an underwater section, so as the waves/tides roll in/out an enormously powerful suction is created. This causes an intense current within the swimming hole that changes direction rapidly every minute or so. There are ropes strung across the main section, and then one that you can pull yourself along to go through the tunnel. There is just enough of a threat in the idea of getting sucked into the underwater tube to get your adrenaline pumping, and this combined with the acrobatic potential of an underwater rope and a conveniently placed submerged rock results in some amazing playfulness, even in adults. By this time we had bonded with our fellow tourists and were ready to join together in all kinds of shenanigans and comfortable laughing with/at each other. This last bit was important, as we tested the limits of how far we could stray from the rope, how high we could balance on the rock, or which body parts we could link to the rope before the indomitable water inevitably returned us to our tightfisted grip on the lifeline. I think we all felt that we could do it forever and never get bored, but also realized fairly quickly that it was fatigue, not boredom, that would limit our adventures. What a workout! Walter again led the way in jumping from crazy heights (the exhilarating of the jump replaced immediately by the driving need to find the rope as soon as you hit the water), and then after that, we retreated to the car, exhausted but satisfied. Both of our young tour guides collapsed into the front seat in exhaustion, and were fast asleep by the time we got back to the fales. They'd made us laugh all day and shown us a truly amazing adventurous side to Samoa, and they deserved their rest.

The combination of adorable and entertaining guides, incredible sights, fantastic company, and invigorating adventure made this a day we will never forget!

Monday, January 13, 2020

Samoa with Maria: Days 1-2

Well, 2019 was a challenging, fascinating, busy, educational year, and I can't believe it's over! I have gotten tragically behind on posts, due in part to having less time to write, but even more to having so many blog-worthy things going on! Anyway, J and I wish everyone a Happy New Year and all the best for 2020, which will be another amazing year, I'm sure!

As you know, back in September I went to Samoa for the cousins/best friends trip that Maria and I have been intending to go on since we were kids. We've both had extremely busy lives, and lived in a lot of different places (but almost never the same one), and so a natural time has not presented itself. But we finally got our acts together and made the time, and it was just as incredible as we always hoped it would be! It was amazing to have such an extended time (9 days) to talk in person and catch up in more satisfying detail than we ever could on Skype, and then to combine that with being in a truly stunning place... who could ask for more? I plan to do three posts about Samoa, but feel that I should just start out by saying that I highly recommend it to anyone who has the time to fly to the middle of the Pacific - I was very impressed!

Upon arriving to the airport in Apia (on Upolu, the more populous island) and reuniting with Maria (who had to hang around for hours waiting for my flight to get in, poor thing), we caught a taxi to Matareva Beach Fales, on the south coast. We intended to take the famous (or infamous) Samoan bus, but found out that they barely run on the weekend, and the ones that do apparently weren't swinging by the airport, so... taxi! (More on Samoan buses later, by the way.)
Upon arrival at the stunning Matareva beach, Maria decided to take a well-deserved nap, while I elected to read in one of the many hammocks scattered around. It was glorious, let me tell you. I took a rather nice picture of this moment, but this isn't it. This is a photo I found online (of a hammock a few minutes down the beach) because my second act upon arriving was to set my phone down on a rock that turned out to be well within reach of the waves. That photo is lost forever, as the phone never recovered. (In its defense, I'd already thoroughly soaked it once while snowboarding in the sleet, so it really had tried.)
Maria kindly let me take some pictures on her phone, I tried not to be monstrously annoying borrowing it all the time, and it's not the highest quality either, so I've supplemented the pictures we took with some that I found on the internet. Samoa is so gloriously beautiful that many people have taken pictures, and I appreciate being able to piggy back off of their efforts.

We spent the rest of that day relaxing and exploring the beach, which was just what the doctor ordered. The contrast of the white sand, blue water, and black rocks is incredible. 

That evening there was one of the most mind-blowing sunsets I've ever seen. We had walked around the nearest cove and sat down to watch the whole thing, and every moment was stunning. Days later, at a different fale (definition coming, I promise), we were still talking about it, and another tourist pulled out her phone and said, "This one!" As if it could be confused with an other sunset! Horrified that we hadn't photographed it, she kindly emailed me this picture.
After dark that night was the weekly cultural performance, put on by the local youth community, and it was fantastic. Pictures would have been useless, plus we couldn't take our eyes off the performers, but click here for a video on Matareva's Facebook page for a glimpse into the show. Of course ours wasn't exactly like that, but close enough.

The next day was Sunday, which we discovered means not only no buses, but no anything else. All of the attractions we were interested in were closed, which turned out to be completely fine, because we had a fantastic day further exploring the beaches. We walked quite a long way down the beach, and every sight was good for the soul.

It was the perfect temperature, too (at least for me, who likes heat). We often dipped in the water to cool down a bit, or just waded along. We saw all kinds of shells, coral, and sea creatures, as well as fascinating plants and driftwood. We also did some snorkeling right at our accommodation, which was great!

No other sunset will compare to that first night, but they continued to be beautiful.

I love the way the light reflects so strongly off the water at sunset.

So... fales. Fale is the Samoan word for house, and can be used for any kind of house. However, "in general, traditional Samoan architecture is characterized by an oval or circular shape, with wooden posts holding up a domed roof. There are no walls. The base of the architecture is a skeleton frame" (Wikipedia, Architecture of Samoa). These are semi-traditional beach fales, and are the most popular kind of accommodation in Samoa. We stayed the first two nights in the closer blue-topped one. The roofs are made of woven waxy leaves and are theoretically waterproof, but have obviously been supplemented by rather modern tarps in this case. 

On the third night a storm was blowing in, and our hosts asked us to move to a sturdier fale, this one with a metal roof. We also put down all the walls, which are on strings kind of like blinds. I don't know how bad the storm was, because I slept better that night than I had the two previous nights.

I forgot to take a picture of the inside of our fale, but it looked like this but better, because our sheets had crazy-cool-clashing patterns on them. Sleeping basically outside (just a mosquito net around us) on a warm night sounded like paradise, and it was idyllic as we were relaxing, chatting, and reading before bed, looking out at the ocean and listening to the waves. But I rediscovered that I like complete silence for actual sleeping, and there was no silence to be had. There were lots of birds, as well as the sound of the waves, which I would have said would be pleasant white noise, but in fact kept me up. I thought that this was plenty, and then the million roosters got going at about 3:00am, and all was lost. Maria slept through it all (except sometimes the roosters), so apparently it was just me, but it wasn't until the night of the storm that I got any sleep. It was completely and utterly worth it for the experience of staying in a beach fale and for all the awake parts, but also I like sleeping.
The fales themselves were stunning, but what was even better (certainly about Matareva Beach Fales, but also about Samoa in general) was the amazingly genuine, warm, inclusive way we were embraced as immediately part of the community. These fales are owned and operated by a whole, big extended family, and everyone from toddlers to grandparents (or very likely great-grandparents) is involved. There is no public land in Samoa, but rather every bit of it is owned by Samoan families who have often passed it down through many generations, and who often both live on it and run a business out of it, as this family does. So we really were staying at their place, and it felt that way. Hospitality and kindness will continue to be a theme during my posts, and if I ever forget to mention it, just assume that every Samoan we met was truly lovely to us.

I intended to include Day 3 in this post, but realized that the Adventure Tour we went on that day is more than enough for a full post all by itself, so I'll save it for next time. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

We Bought a House!

I know I'm over a week late with this post, but I decided that being able to show you pictures of OUR NEW HOUSE was worth a delay. After four years of living in Karori, we decided we were ready to stop renting and own our own house. We were then very fortunate to have an extremely short and relatively stress-free house-buying experience. Our friend Anais actually saw the listing and sent it to us (and we're very grateful), J went and saw it when I was in Samoa, we put in an offer just a few days after I got back, the offer was accepted that day, and here we are! The most common way to sell a house in NZ is by tender, which is like a blind auction. You put in your offer with any conditions you may have, then the sellers look at all the offers at once and just pick one. It is very stressful and uncertain for potential buyers, because you have no way of knowing if you're offering such a low amount you won't be competitive or way over-paying. But we did learn that it's always best to have no conditions, which we were able to do, and it all worked out, because they accepted our offer!

I found it very hard to wait until the closing date, which was a little less than two months later, but the day finally came, and we're all settled in the new house. I could have posted earlier this week, but we had an entire week of rain and wind, culminating in a huge storm on Saturday and Sunday.

Unsurprisingly for those of you who remember my obsession with views, the view is my favourite part of this house. And while this view that we had all week is still cool, it is not quite the way I wanted to introduce you all to it.

I will begin at the beginning, but don't worry, plenty of view pictures are coming. Here is the front of the house. It is what I think we would call a duplex in the States, but here they call it a semi-detached (we think).

This is coming through the front door. You can see the stairs as well as a glimpse of the dining room and the kitchen off to the right.

This is the lounge (living room). We might still play around a bit with the organization of the furniture, but this is working well for now. You'll notice the drop-cloths on the couch and chairs - explanation coming soon.
Also, on a not-so-exciting note, the wind I mentioned seems to have damaged the roof, and so when we had the downpour on Sunday, rain started dripping from the ceiling (just in front of the bookshelf). That rather abruptly ended the honeymoon phase of having bought a house, but we were very lucky to find a roofer who came straight over and did a temporary fix, and who will finish the repairs properly later this week. Not a huge thing in the end, but it did give us a fright!

This is my favourite spot in the house - can you guess why? Sun, guinea pigs, beautiful view, and a book, and I'm set for life! So this is officially my spot. (Again, will be better without the dropcloths, but not yet.)

This is the view from my spot this morning - I discovered that I can watch the shadow recede across the valley in the morning, which was lovely.

This was the view as the sun was setting last night (after the ridiculous storms had stopped).

This is our kitchen - quite small, but also very functional, so I don't mind. Also, it has a cool cork floor which we quite like. We are going to redo the cabinets in March, when our favourite carpenter, who also happens to be my wonderful dad, is coming to help out. Yay!

There is a lovely little window between the kitchen and the dining room, which is both pretty and convenient.

This is the dining room - sunny and light, as well as enjoying fabulous views!

And right outside the dining room is my favourite outside spot - the deck! I will be (and have already done) much reading, tea drinking, and view admiring here!

This is the view from my chair on the deck. Because the bushes cut off the bottom off the hills where the houses are, you could almost believe you're out in the country.

This is our back yard: two relatively flat terraced areas, and then to the right there is a big drop-off down to a wooded area.

This is the view from the higher terrace. I apparently neglected to take a picture down into the wooded area, but that's alright. The point is it's quite large but rather inaccessible at the moment, so it will be interesting to explore how we can use it.

Around the front of the house is a fence courtyard, and they left us a matching picnic table, which is nice.

And the fence continues along the side of the house to the backyard. We'd like to get a dog at some point, but would have to fully fence the grassy area in order to feel good about letting the dog outside.

Back inside, upstairs is our bedroom. There's a nice, big closet on the right, but more importantly...

... look at the view!!!!! I cannot get enough of this view, and have to drag myself away from it in order to get anything done. This is basically the central bit, looking straight out, and you can see the north-west end of Karori, with Makara Mountain Bike Park and Makara Peak in the background.

This is looking to further the west (turning left if you're facing the window). The big trees in the foreground often have lots of birds in them, including native Tūī and Kākā, which is very exciting! We can also see our first Wellington house up in the hills.

And this is turning to the right, facing more directly north. The big green area is Karori Park, where we can see people playing cricket and football (soccer). Our house we just moved out of is near the top of the hills on the right. We've stayed within quite a small area of Karori - we like it a lot here, and Christophe, Anais, Marty, and baby Olivia live just down the road, which is a big motivator to stay nearby!

Pulling away (with difficulty) from the view, this is the spare bedroom/J's office.

And the upstairs bathroom.

There is also a bathroom/laundry room downstairs, which is convenient.

And we also have an internal-access garage, which is quite nice. We've decided not to park the car in it, and instead use it for a workshop. J is already quite enjoying doing various projects in there, and I'm delighted by having an automatic garage door so I can open it as I bike up and just ride right in! I don't know why exactly, but that makes me very happy. Anyway, we haven't really organized the garage properly yet, but we'll get there.

Also, surprise - we have a temporary cat! This is Rumi, and his family sold us this house, and is currently in-between houses, meaning there isn't a place for him to stay. After exhausting their other options, they asked if he could stay with us until they move into their new house and can bring him home. As you know, we're animal lovers, so of course we said yes. And plus, look what a beautiful boy he is!

He loves J very much already. J is definitely a cat whisperer! But we learned that Rumi tears up furniture, so we got drop-cloths to cover ours until he moves back home. It's a small price to pay for his charming company. 

I couldn't resist one more sunset picture - and as you can imagine, there will be lots more of these during the time we live here. Which I'm hoping will be a long time.

We're very excited to be living in a house that's really ours! We've been in rentals for such a long time, but now here we are in our very own house! It doesn't feel real yet, but it's a good feeling anyway!