Saturday, August 16, 2014

2000

So this is a milestone post that more than once over the last few years I never thought I would make it to. Blogger is telling me that this is my 2,000th post.

The blog start in Newfoundland in February 2005 as a way, if I recall, to write about some stuff the Express wouldn't let me. Probably politics. Always drove me nuts that I had a successful, award-winning political column with the Packet and that was viewed as something the Express wasn't interested in.

Still annoyed about that, apparently. So anyway....

Record show I wrote a whopping total of 10 posts and then the blog went fallow and probably would have remained that way, as so many blogs do, until it got a jump start when we moved to Iqaluit in August, 2005.

(Yes, our 9th anniversary of the move is coming up. No, I won't be writing about. Maybe when we hit 10 years.)

And then we were off. Like a few bloggers before me, and many afterwards, the blog became about trying to adapt to a very different lifestyle and culture than what I grew up with. It wasn't entirely about that. There were other things like politics, movies, geekiness, and hell even some curling thrown in there. Blogs that tend to be just about how odd Nunavut is, as a way of explaining things to friends and family down south don't tend to last long either.

I have no secret to my success on this thing. I just wrote. Between 206-2009 I wrote a lot, sometimes more than a post a day. And then since 2010 it's faded. I can't precisely explain why; it's a number of things.

First, it can be hard to write about certain topics. I love writing about politics, but it's a challenge. I'm now nine years removed from Newfoundland and people writing about the politics of a place where they don't live....well, that often doesn't go well. There are people in Newfoundland who wouldn't piss on Margaret Wente if she were on fire.

Without getting into too much detail, I'm not comfortable writing about federal politics, no matter what my union representative tells me. I think that's just being prudent.

As for Nunavut politics, I...dabble in it. But so much of it is also based in the culture and traditions of the Inuit. I've been here nine years, so at least there are people realize I'm not here for a contract, a quick few bucks and a story before heading back down south. But I still try and be aware that I am perhaps missing something from not being from here.

Although, and this is a separate post, some heads need to roll over this dump fire. Next municipal election is going to be ugly.

Once I get away from politics, well, I do track what tends to be read most often. You guys really don't like curling (no worries about that, I'm not curling this year. I need a break), you can be hit and miss on the travel stories, and the geek culture stuff, which I've considered shifting towards, tends to be hit and miss as well.

Anyway, I really did think about hitting 2,000 posts, dropping the mic and walking off stage. It's a good number. A lot of blogs don't publish that much.

But it feels...limiting. I might not be posting twice a day anymore, but there's still stuff  I want to say. I like posting when travelling. It reminds me of what's going on that day, so I can write travel pieces later, if I want. There are times when there is stuff that's pissing me that I want to write about (the dump fire will be coming shortly. One on social media is forthcoming as well). Or just something weird (I have an ode to travel shoes coming).

I just like the option. I'm a not bad writer. I should be writing more. I really do try, but shiny things (internet, comic books) distract me. So does work. And, you know, I have this lovely wife who is mostly pretty patient with me. And she's fun and cute and I should be spending more time with her too.

So many things....so I write when I can.

So 2,000 blog posts. Took me about nine years. I figure I'll be about 65 by the time I hit 4,000. But hey, stranger things have happened....

Last Five
1. All along the watchtower (live) - U2
2. Jesus was an only son - Bruce Springsteen*
3. The Hispanola/Silver and Loyals March - The Chieftains
4. City of lakes - Matt Mays
5. Nobody girl - Ryan Adams

Saturday, August 09, 2014

Hawaii wrap-up


I’m actually back in Iqaluit as I write this, so let’s wrap up with a few comments about Hawaii, and even a couple things about our stop in Ottawa, before moving on to other things. Besides, judging by my traffic stats, I’m not exactly setting the world on fire with “What I did on my summer vacation”. Then again, traffic on the blog always slows down during the summer.
1.    I was just starting to get the hang of Maui when it was time to leave. Cathy and I have been vacationing together for about 12 years now. A lot of these vacations have tended to be go go go…Cathy wanted this one to be a bit more sit around and do nothing. That’s not something I’m great at. I tend to wake up and go “what are we going to do today?” and Cathy’s response was often “we could do nothing, you know.” I wasn’t great at it the first half of our time in Maui, but I was just starting to settle down into sloth when it was time to go. Oh well….

2.   Apparently we need to split vacation between mountains and ocean. If you were to ask what my favourite moments were, they would have been flying over the volcano, hiking around Volcano park and driving up Haleakalā and hanging out at the peak. Cathy would probably pick swimming with manta rays (admittedly, very cool) and relaxing on the beach. Keeping this in mind, next year’s tentative plans seem to be a jaunt into the Austrian Alps followed by a cruise around the Greek isles. Something for both of us.

3.   Hawaii also confirmed that I’m just not comfortable being in the ocean. Cathy found it both amusing/worrying any time I went in the water. I can’t swim well, despite swimming lessons. I just can’t relax in it. I call it an environment that is actively trying to kill me every time I get in it. Cathy thinks that’s a touch melodramatic, but then again, she’s part sea mammal anyway. I envy her comfort in the ocean. I’ll never have it.

4.   I also seem to have become a bit nervous in planes, which is annoying. Granted, we had two bumpy flights and the one from the Big Island to Maui verged on terrifying at moments (overheads popping open and people screaming from the turbulence). But even on the big jets, I have difficulty getting comfortable. I don’t know if it’s paranoia from my Copenhagen flight experience a few years ago, or if American airlines are just so spectacularly uncomfortable and cattle-like that I can’t relax, but it is frustrating. Honestly, the best flight I had on the vacation was with Air Canada from Toronto to L.A.

5.    Hawaii is expensive. And this is saying something because we normally laugh at prices when we go out. Living in Nunavut gives you a different perspective on what is expensive and what isn’t. But even we noticed that things weren’t cheap in Hawaii. But the thing that surprised us was that even things grown locally (coffee, pineapples) weren’t cheap. If you’re going, gear up your budget for it.

6.    Perhaps that’s why Hawaiians are so eager to go on vacation. We heard a lot of radio ads for trips to Las Vegas while we were there. Basically to have some fun, gamble and do your Christmas shopping. I guess you need to get away, even if that away is a tropical paradise.

7. It is a dangerous thing to let me into a supermarket in the US while on vacation. The plan in Maui was since we were staying at a condo, we would buy groceries and not eat out every meal as a way to save money. Except I got in Safeway and wanted to buy everything. There was so much food, and stuff I'd never seen before and I wanted it all. I think Cathy was getting ready to taze me at one point to try and get me under control.

8.    We ran into a huge number of Alaskan ex-pats living there. I guess that makes sense.

9.   I remain baffled why Hawaii hasn’t gone all in on alternative energy. Maybe they have, but it just didn’t seem evident. Hawaii has easy sources of solar, wind, geothermal and wave energy. The one thing they don’t have is oil and gas. So why not have significant alternative energy and actively encourage hybrid and electric cars and punish gas-powered cars and trucks. Most of the islands are small enough that hybrids and electrics make a lot of sense, but I saw few of them. It’s a little baffling to me.

10.   I’m no good at litre/gallon conversions, but Maui’s gas tended to be in the $4.50 a gallon range. Although, in an interesting twist, the cheapest gas on the island was right next to the airport…at a Costco. If I lived there I’d have a Costco card just for the gas. I’ve mocked people in Newfoundland who drive 30 minutes, wait in line for another 30 minutes, and burn a ton of gas, just to fill up at Costco and save three cents a litre. But in Maui it makes sense. At their gas bar I filled up at $4.04 a gallon. A Shell station right around the corner was charging $4.52. That’s insane.

11.   This was our first experiment with staying in condos on vacation instead of hotel rooms. Gotta say, we quite liked it. Yes, the one in Kailua Kona seemed like it was leftover as a set prop from Hawaii 5-0…the 70s version of the show, but it was fine. And the place in Kihei, Maui, was just spectacular.

12.   We never did a luau, which I sort of regret. We begged off on the Big Island, figuring we’d get one in Maui. But the one everyone agrees is the best was sold out six weeks in advance. They’re expensive, and there were food allergy concerns, but it might have been fun. Oh well, next time.

13.   And yeah, I can see going back there in a few years. The nice thing is we only did two islands. There are seven. And each island has its own vibe. So yeah, I could see going back and exploring a couple of the other islands in a few years. We liked Hawaii. I was concerned it was going to be so touristy that it would be a turn off. And yeah, Maui caters to tourists a lot more than the Big Island, but it wasn’t too bad. I think it helped that we didn’t stay in, and actively avoided, the big resort areas north of Lahania and south of Kihei.
And as for the couple of days in Ottawa, three things...
1. I think we fell in love with Fiat 500. It's what Enterprise gave us at the airport. That is a fun little car. I enjoyed zipping all over Ottawa for a few days in it. Yeah, it's small and I wouldn't want to be sitting in the back seat of the thing, but I like the car quite a bit. Cathy and I have had semi-joking conversations about getting one next summer. The main problem, I think, is not the extravagance of having a second car in a place like Iqaluit when we don't have kids, it's that we would both be fighting over who got to drive it.
2. I was curious about what kind of reception I would receive after arriving at Southways, given the racket I kicked up last time. As soon as I mentioned my name to the woman at the desk, the manager came zipping around the corner to let me know my coolers were fine and to have a chat with me. So that appears to be resolved. Although I thought they might put us in a nice room to make up for some of the hassles. Nope. One of the oldest rooms in the place in some pea soup green colour. Oh well. I guess all is not completely forgiven (and don't tell me hotel people can't be spitey to annoying guests. I'm friends with people in the industry. I know they do it...)
3. Finally, if you're in Ottawa and think "I need donuts" and your first thought is to go to Tim Hortons, smack yourself in the face hard and go to Suzq instead. Best donuts I've had since I was a kid and used to hit the bakery at Woolworths on Water Street. The Dirty Chocolate is especially wonderful, although the maple bacon (with real bacon) is fairly brilliant too.
If nothing else, I doubt I will be eating donuts from Tim Hortons anymore. It seems a waste when I could get some from there. If anyone is flying up from Ottawa to Iqaluit and wants to buy me a dozen, I will be your friend forever. Or at least until the donuts are gone...

Last Five
1. Butterfly song - Andy Stochansky
2. What makes you happy - Liz Phair*
3. Save me - The Donnas
4. Shakin' - The Dandy Warhols
5. Buffalo seven - Matthew Good

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Maui: Land of Car Sickness


Maui has many virtues going for it. The sunshine, the beaches, surfers, rainforests, extinct volcanoes…but my lasting memory of the island will be one of car sickness.
Ordinarily I only get car sick if I’m trying to read while in a moving car. Frustrating, but I’ve learned to adapt by not doing that thing. But Maui managed a new one my making me car sick while driving, not once, but three separate times. Let’s just say there are few straight lines in getting from Point A to Point B.
The first was by accident, and it’s a decision I will be paying the interest on for the rest of my marriage. Ever make a decision that disagreed with the option provided by your wife, realize it was the wrong one and have a vision of a conversation you’ll be replaying for decades to come? That’s what happened when, after enjoying a spectacular sunset just north of tourist hub of Lahaina, I decided to turn left when leaving the beach. Cathy advised turning right and retracing our path back to our condo. I was sure that left was faster. It would take us over the north-western part of Maui and, from a quick glance at the map, appeared to be a shorter distance.
What I had failed to take into consideration was that while it might look shorter, it was not the four-lane highway we had enjoyed earlier in the day. My option, Route 340, can generously be called a goat path in places. It’s not just that it’s a narrow two lane road filled with hills, valleys, twists and blind turns, it’s that it occasionally narrows to one lane, then to one gravel lane. Then one narrow gravel lane against the edge of a cliff with the Pacific Ocean below. Assuming we could see it, of course, as I was driving it at night. Occasionally traffic would come from the opposite direction. Just to make life more interesting.
It’s not the stupidest thing I’ve ever done, but it’s Top 10. I told locals what I did and they looked at me like I had a death wish. They avoid driving that road during the daytime. Driving it at night is insane. I look on the bright side. By driving it at night I was less able to see how close I was to driving the car off a cliff than if I’d done it during the day time.
After we finished, and survived, there was a McDonald’s. I pulled in, ordered something to drink (I forget what) and spent 15 minutes taking a lot of deep breaths and getting my hands to unclinch.
The second case of car sickness was at least during the day time and more pleasant. The Road to Hana ends up on a lot of lists as a Must-do if you’re in Hawaii. It ends up on a lot of bucket lists as something you should drive in your lifetime.
And it is spectacular. The scenery as you’re driving along the narrow and winding road is some of the best I’ve seen in my lifetime.  Just as long as you stop regularly and enjoy some of it. One of the smarter purchases we made was the audio guide Gypsy Guide to the Road to Hana for our iPhone. It’s a battery hog, but provides a ton of useful information about places to stop along the way, and some history of Maui. So we stopped at several spectacular waterfalls, botanical gardens, roadside food stops, beaches and parks along the way.
If you’re ever looking for proof that the saying “it’s the journey, not the destination” is true, then the Road to Hana is it. The actual community of Hana is barely worth the trip. It’s small and there isn’t much to do. We only spent a few minutes there before driving onwards to the Haleakala National Park a few miles later, with its “sacred” pools. They’re not sacred to Hawaiians, but to marketers, who very effectively sold the idea that tourists should travel there and spend money along the way. Instead of the crowded pools we spent a few hours hiking up the side of the volcano to Waimoku Falls.
It really is a beautiful drive, even with the 64 bridges and reported 620 curves (I didn’t count) during the 84 km drive from Hahului to Hana. The traffic is bad and yeah, I got a little nauseous by the end of the day. But unlike the first drive, this one was well worth it.
The final bout came courtesy of Haleakala National Park again. It’s a huge park, taking up more than 130 square kilometers. One day we did the lush tropical side, a couple of days later I drove to the summit of the extinct volcano that makes up the heart of the park.
Notice there was an I not a we in that last sentence. After two lots of winding roads and with her ears not really recovered from the ear-popping they got on the Big Island, Cathy opted for a day at the beach instead.
Yeah, I got a little nauseous driving to the summit, but it might have been the most fun drive of the trip. No cliffs, for one thing. The traffic wasn’t too bad. There are plenty of places as you’re climbing to the summit of Haleakala, which is an extinct volcano, to pull over and enjoy magnificent views. You get to drive through Maui’s Upcountry, which is a world different than the beaches and resorts of Lahania. As you’re driving up you pass cattle ranches and cowboys. Occasionally, you see a small horde of mountain bikers barreling down the mountain, apparently living out a dream/death wish (note, most did not bike up the mountain. There are companies that will bus you to the top and then guide you to the bottom of the mountain via bike. Bit of a cheat if you ask me).
The view from the summit of Haleakala can also make you giddy. Possibly it’s the lack of oxygen – you are at 10,000 feet – but on a reasonable clear day you can see the Big Island, about 50 miles or more away. The volcanic crater is huge, and you can hike it if you have the time. Apparently the sunrise from the summit is spectacular but I didn’t have it in me to get up at 4 am to start the drive.

I loved being on top of Haleakala. I was reluctant to leave...
Three very different road trips. They all made me a little nauseous, but hey, sometimes a little car sickness is worth it. Except for that Route 340 trip. That one is going to haunt me…
Last Five
1. Call me on your way back home (live) - Ryan Adams*
2. Slippery slopes - Jenny Lewis
3. Dear Prudence - The Beatles
4. Hold me now - Thompson Twins
5. It's hard to be a saint in the city (Live) - Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Vacation housekeeping

So some house-keeping before I get to Maui stuff. Maui has been more laid back, so there's less to write about, but that's not necessarily a bad thing.

1. I slagged Southways Hotel in Ottawa a few weeks back for various sins, mostly over changing their baggage policy which meant I had to abandon a pair of coolers. I did it on this blog but, because I was in an especially bad mood over that, I also went on Iqaluit Public Service Announcements page on Facebook, Twitter, Yelp and TripAdvisor. I was pretty thorough in my use of social media to express my disgust.

I rarely do that sort of thing, but sadly it works. I complained at the front desk when it was happening, but there was nothing they could do. When I blasted them on all those social media platforms, and people responded with dismay, well there was a change of heart in a matter of days.

So now they will keep bags for a month, assuming you have a return reservation already in place. Which is quite fair. They also contacted me personally to let me know that the coolers I abandoned were reclaimed from our room and are waiting for us when we return to Ottawa.

On the one hand, I'm glad to see Southways recognized they made a mistake and took quick action to fix it and made serious efforts to reach out to me to rectify the situation. It's more than what a lot of businesses would have done. Still, I wish they could have seen how severe the reaction to this idea would be from Nunavumiut, which make up a significant part of their business, before they took those steps.

Anyway, the situation is over with only some minor inconvenience...

2. Speaking of TripAdvisor, I think one of the things that surprised me the most in Hawaii is how much businesses depend on/fear TripAdvisor. I've heard radio ads talking about how highly rated their business is on TripAdvisor.

And I have to admit we're using TripAdvisor/Yelp/Google Maps a lot more on this vacation than we ever have before (we also downloaded a Road to Hana audio app for the iPhone, which was quite useful and better than trying to read highlights from a book while driving). Part of it is we now have iPhones, which we never had on previous vacations. So we can come here, get burner sims, and have actual smart phones when we travel around. It's made navigating easier, but it's also made finding places to eat or shop much easier.

So yes, all hail/live in fear of the mighty social media...

3. Every day I wear my Montreal Expos baseball hat, I get compliments or a comment on it. People haven't forgotten that team, even in the US.

4. We're routinely asked where we're from when we travel, more so in Hawaii than anywhere else we've been. And let's face it, no one in the United States knows where Nunavut is. Over the years, we've refined our location from Northern Canada (too many people thought we were talking about Toronto...seriously), to the Arctic (routinely got Edmonton/Yellowknife) to the North Pole (not everyone thought we were kidding) to the current Eastern Canadian Arctic. We add just west of Greenland (never mind that Grise Fiord is also technically just west of Greenland and it's much different than Iqaluit) and people get the idea.

It's an automatic conversation starter because people are curious about why you live there and when you moved and what you do. I've noticed an interesting reaction when we explain our jobs. When Cathy says she's a teacher, she gets nods and smiles. When she says she's a special needs teacher, she gets more conversation and more...respect. People acknowledge that's not always an easy job.

I've said I work with the government, which gets a blank look at best, or sometimes disapproving, depending on the person you're speaking with. I've said PR/Communications, and that always gets a frown. Lately I've taken to saying I work with an economic development agency and that....oddly gets some respectful looks. Americans seem to like the idea of doing something that helps grow and develop the economy.

It's all about refining the message to reach the right audience to help achieve your goals. My bosses would be so proud...

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Big Island post-mortem

Some random thoughts from the Big Island...

1. If your ears are sensitive to changes in pressure, man is the Big Island not for you. There are signs on the side of the road telling you what elevation you're currently hitting. It's nothing to go from sea level, to 2,000 feet, to sea level again in a half hour. The trip to Hilo - Volcano is 0 to 4,000 feet. And, at it's most extreme, you can go from sea level to 10,000 feet in an hour if you decide to make the trip to the observatory at Mauna Kea. Cathy's asked for a break, now that we're on Maui, and to stay near sea level for a few days.

2. The Big Island has some of the nicest roads I've ever seen. It all looks like it's been paved recently and it's kept clean. There's hardly any litter or debris along the side of the roads. In fact, there are signs routinely warning you of heavy fines - $500 to $1,000 - if you're caught littering. I like that. Then again, littering drives me nuts. It's one the laziest human behaviours around.

3. There are a lot of churches, but few catholic ones. I'm sure they're there, we just didn't see any until we hit Maui. There was a small town we drove through along the south coat. Couldn't be anymore than 1,000 people, but we drove past at least a half dozen churches.

(Found out later that the Catholic Church was banned for decades on the islands by Protestant missionaries. Interesting...)

4. I understand  the whole, laid back, friendly Hawaiian thing is almost a cliche at this point, but really, they are some of the nicest, friendliest people you could ever hope to meet. Great smiles, always helpful, always will to chat or carry on a conversation about something.

5. Despite the non-littering thing, there is one thing cluttering up the place - Hawaii is in the middle of election mode, so there are signs for governor, lt. Governor, senators, state senators, city council, school boards....everywhere. Unless I've missed something the election isn't until November. It's only July and there's a sizable amount of clutter going on.

Although, interestingly, none of the signs indicate party affiliation. For example, until I checked, I didn't know that Neil Albercrombie was a Democrat. Makes me feel a little better about using a fan with his name on it to keep cool during a Sunday flea market.

6. It perhaps means nothing to people who live down south, but I will weep when I have to leave Hawaii and deal with Nunavut internet again. We spent one night chilling in Kailua Kona watching a movie on Netflix (Lilo and Stich, of course) and watching YouTube videos. And at no point did it lock up and we have to go and do something else for 10 minutes. It just....streamed. It worked like internet is supposed to work.

This is a bunch of tiny islands in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and they have working internet. So can we please have something like that in Nunavut already? It's ridiculous we have to beg for these things sometimes.

7. Give credit to the Americans for one thing, they do a mean national park. Seriously, if you come to Hawaii and don't do Volcano National Park, you're missing out on something spectacular. And it's not just the simmering volcano that you can go and watch, which obviously draws all the attention, but some great walking trails as well. The staff are also tremendously helpful.

8. People still seemed pretty confused about Obamacare. We've had a few conversation with people, mostly non-Hawaiians, about it. We always sum up our argument this way "We love your country, we think it's great. We would never live here because of your healthcare system." And the thing of it is, I think many American know they're being screwed over, they just have no idea how to make it right.

9. I was very impressed with the size of the biking lanes I saw on the Big Island, especially around Kailua Kona. Then I noticed a bunch of people training for the Iron Man race, which is in September, so that makes sense.

10. Perhaps I just missed it, but I really thought the Big Island would be more into alternative energy sources. I knew the place would be expensive, but I was still surprised at how expensive. It's not Nunavut-level, but some of it isn't far off. I saw gas range from $4.09 a gallon to $4.50 a gallon. Even local staples like fruit were pricier than I thought.

It's why I thought things like solar or wind would be a bigger deal. Anything to help offset some of the costs. But even most of the cars were standard. I saw few hybrids or electric cars. No windmills and little solar. I think there is some geo-thermal going on, but I guess I just expected more...

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The land of coffee

I'm not a complete idiot. Of course I knew that Hawaii grew coffee before I came here and that it is a big deal. This isn't even the first place I've been where coffee is big. When I was in Costa Rica, it was made abundently clear how important coffee was and that it was the best in the world and anyone who told you otherwise were lying bastards.

But man, Hawaii is something else.

First off, it's good coffee. I'm far from being an expert on these things. I've only taken to drinking it every now and then in the last couple of years. I find the coffee in Canada bitter and tastes like burnt rubber. Every now and then I'll hit something that makes me think "Oh, this is why people like this stuff."

I've yet to hit a bad cup of coffee here. I've hit some truly extraordinary stuff.  I bought some from a place called McClure Farms and I'm kicking myself for not buying a crate of it.

Having said that, the industry surrounding it in Hawaii is impressive. I first got a hint of it at a farmer's market in Hilo. I was just eyeing something called Kau coffee, when the guy behind the table starts giving me the whole spiel. That the area, just south of Volcano National Park, used to grow sugarcane, then they transformed it to coffee, using coffee beans found in the area dating back to Brazil in the 19th century...and so on and so forth.

It was a good story. I bought a bag and we drank it while in the Hilo/Volcano area. It's pretty good.

But by the time we hit  Kailua-Kona, it had reached epic proportions. We drove into the city from the south, which means we cut through the heart of their coffee country. There were signs everywhere inviting us to do coffee tours or visit their gift shops. One thoughtfully reminded us that we had passed their farm 500 yards ago and that we should turn around because we were missing out on the best coffee in Hawaii. It seems every coffee in the region has won an award of some kind, at some point. They also all have epic stories of some kind.

The lady at the table who sold me the McClure coffee explained that since the coffee was grown by an 86-year-old man, and that it wasn't lumped in and roasted with beans from other farms, it was unique and better than the rest. It was a good story, so I bought the bag. And it's probably the best I've ever had. Sadly, it would cost a fortune to get it shipped to Iqaluit and I can't find it for sale off the Big Island. Damn.

And so it goes. There's that much coffee being sold in Kailua-Kona that I don't know how people actually sleep. There are cafes everywhere, there are shops specializing in coffee everywhere. There was a street fair on the Sunday we were there, and there was enough coffee being sold there to keep Nunavut caffeinated for a year.

My favourite involves Donkey Balls.

There's a store on Ali'i Street, the main drag, called Donkey Balls. It was hot, it had air conditioning and the name intrigued me. Basically they sell all kinds of chocolate, most of it covering macademia nuts. Hence, donkey balls. They also sell coffee and the guy behind the counter was an older gent and quite ambiable. After buying a lot of balls (they're quite tasty) and getting an iced coffee, I expressed my confusion about all the claims about which coffee is best.

"All the coffee around here is good. It might be grown at different altitudes, or roasted different ways, but there's no such thing as a bad cup of coffee around here," he said.

Which I thought was a fair point. You can get blinders on these things, chasing around which coffee might be the best. I know little about coffee, but I can get that way sometimes. If I'm in coffee-nirvana, maybe I want to try and find the best coffee around. Instead, just enjoy what's there.

But I had another question. I'd seen ads for another Donkey Balls up on the main highway. I asked if it was the same company.

His complexion went from laid-back Hawaiian chill, to scowl. The word "thieves" was not said, but it wouldn't have taken many drinks to get him to say it.

So yes, there is a Donkey Ball rivalary in Kailua-Kona. We went to the other store, by the way. Can't speak to their coffee, but their chocolate salty balls are quite tasty.

One last coffee related story. I went into another shop and, with some amusement, noticed they also sold tea.

"Isn't that sacriliege around here?" I asked.

"Well, there are some people who go for that sort of thing, I guess," he said. It was a tone of voice similar to what you might hear if you ask a Texan what he thinks about gun control.

We haven't seen as much coffee on Maui as the Big Island. There's plenty of it, but they're just not as crazy about it. I mean, there are lots of Starbucks on Maui, but only a few on the Big Island. I imagine in the land of coffee paradise, where every block has a coffee with an award or a story, Starbucks is a bit of a hard sell....

Friday, July 25, 2014

Manta ray nights

Kailua Kona on the west side of the Big Island has a lot going for it. Judging by the size of the airport compared to the one in Hilo, it's where most people choose to land when arriving to this particular island. Thanks to the pair of extinct volcanoes that make up the inner portion of the island, it's in a particularly miraculous rain shadow. Yes, it's still warm and tropical, but it gets a fraction of the rain Hilo does. And yet, it's not quite the desert-like terrain you get if you continue further north.

So it's warm, tropical but not perpetually soaked in rain. I can see why some people might prefer it to Hilo. Which, by the way, pisses people off in Hilo. I spoke to a lady at a market who said Hilo had its time, but now it's Kailua Kona's turn. And you can see it. There does appear to be more money in Kailua Kona, while Hilo appears a bit more....worn down, as it were.

I expected inter-island rivalries when we arrived in Hawaii. That Maui and the Big Island might square off against each other. I didn't expect the regional divide that exists on the Big Island. But it makes sense. It is, in comparison to the rest of the Hawaiian islands, quite large. There's a lot of diverse climates. There's cattle ranching in the north. The south, after you get past Volcano, feels more impoverished, possibly because it's off the beaten track for tourists.

However, we were in Kailua Kona for one reason. And it's wasn't the beaches or the sunnier climate, although after a week of rain that was lovely.  No, the reason why we were in Kailua Kona was to see manta rays.  Cathy read about how you could go night snorkeling and see them. As Cathy is part sea mammal anyway and is looking for any chance to bob in the ocean...

After doing her research she decided she liked a company called Sunlight on Water the best. One quick online booking and we were off. Turns out night diving for manta rays is really popular. When we eventually arrived at our spot I counted 16 boats of varying size clustered into a relatively small area.

Once again, taking into account the somewhat....relaxed view of vacation planning I'm having on this trip, I didn't do much research into what exactly this entails. So after about 30 minutes of trekking in the boat (only to end up in a spot about 100 yards off-shore behind the airport), I began to get the full gist of what was going to happen.

Basically, once it got dark the main boat would put a pair of barges over the side. They served two purposes. First, they gave the snorkelers something to hold onto, which worked well for me as I can't swim well. The 30 feet of ocean between me and the bottom might as well have been the Marinas Trench.

Secondly, the barges produce a powerful light. This light, in turn, draws all kind of plankton in so they can do their thing. And what is it that manta rays like to feed on? Plankton. And when you have 16 boats in a small area all doing the same thing, it must look like a Las Vegas strip buffet to a manta ray.

So I'm bobbing in the ocean, clutching a platform and waiting for manta rays. This is when I'm told mantra rays feed in a very particular way and that we should not touch them, no matter how close they swim.

See, I was figuring the rays would be swimming around the bottom of the ocean and we could see them gluide by, a couple of dozen feet beneath me.

No. Turns out, manta rays like to zoom upwards to get their snack, towards the light, and any fools hangling onto the side of the light, and then veer away at the last second.

Did I mention these rays were about 10-feet from tip-to-tip (medium-sized, according to the guides), have huge, other-wordly mouths and that you can see half-way down their gullet as they're zooming towards you? Did I mention I was being bracketed by a pair of teenage girls?

So yes, what with the cast-reject from Alien powering towards me, as I bobbed on top of an environment actively trying to kill me with teenage girls screaming in my ears, there was only one sane reaction...

I started laughing. I mean, laughing loud enough that I accidentally inhaled some salt water, but that was fine. Moments of spontaneously, unexpected joy are rare in life. Why let a little thing like trying to swallow the Pacific Ocean try to ruin it for you.

Really, it's a genuinely amazing experience. The rays literally break away at the last second as they swoop towards you. They're also completely harmless, despite appearances. They're astonishingly graceful and even after bobbing in the ocean, having been bombed by them dozens of times, I was not ready to come out after our 45 minutes with them was up.

Cathy, for her part, was equally giddy. I hadn't seen her since we hit the water. That's unusual as she likes to keep an eye on me when there's the passing possibility of me dying. But she was having too much fun to give me too much thought.

Hard to blame her, really.  So yes, add snorkeling with manta rays as one of the unexpected joys that I've now gotten to experience in life....