Posts Tagged With: snorkel

Cozumel

I am (like many people) a fan of New Yorker magazine cartoons, and one of the many that have stuck in my mind is from decades ago. It depicts a man and a local Hispanic guide, overlooking a village from a viewpoint on some generic Central American hillside. The guide is saying, “This town has no history, señor. It was built 20 years ago entirely for the tourist trade.” Which brings us to Cozumel, Mexico.

It’s a little unfair to say that Cozumel has no history, but it doesn’t have a lot. A small arrowhead-shaped island less than 20 miles off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, it hummed along for a few millennia, hosting a population of about 10,000 Maya, until the Spanish showed up in 1520 with the gift of smallpox, plus a predilection for destroying Mayan idols and replacing them with Virgin Mary statues . You’ve read this story before; fifty years later the population was less than 300. About the only other event of historical interest was Abraham Lincoln’s failed attempt in 1861 to buy the island from Mexico as a home for freed slaves.

The island is very flat — it’s highest point is less than 50 ft above the surrounding Caribbean — and covered mostly with scrubby tropical vegetation. But it has beautiful beaches (when they are not clogged by sargassum seaweed, about which more shortly) and is one of the world’s premier snorkeling and scuba diving destinations. The main attractions for us, however, are our good friends and occasional travel companions Laura and David, who retired here in August 2018. So here we are.

Our friends live in a large and beautiful apartment overlooking the Caribbean to the west. From their balcony, just on the horizon, you can see the resort of Playa del Carmen across the channel on the Yucatan. You can also the comings and goings of a steady stream of enormous cruise ships; Cozumel is one of the major stops on the Caribbean cruise circuit. The largest of these that we’ve seen is the largest that you can see, the Allure of the Seas, which until 2015 was the largest cruise ship in the world and is now a close second. The Allure towers above everything around here including the buildings, with 16 passenger decks reaching the height of a 24-story building (far higher than any of the actual buildings on the island). It’s as long as four football fields and including crew carries eight thousand people. They could have called it the Behemoth of the Seas.

Because Cozumel is so small (a little under 30 x 10 miles), flat, and close to the coast, it does not enjoy the full climate-moderating effects of the surrounding ocean. It is pleasantly breezy, but hot and humid and subject to the occasional buildup of brief but intense tropical downpours in the afternoons. (The “breeze” is frequently a strong steady wind; I have not yet been able to fly my drone.) Here’s a photo from our first evening, when we were treated to a simultaneous sunset and rainstorm.

The main population center of the island is the town of San Miguel, home to about 3/4 of the island’s 120,000 inhabitants. It doesn’t have much in the way of cultural attractions — no museums or art galleries — but has plenty of cruise ship port-side bars, souvenir stores, and restaurants, the some of the latter sporting debauchery-friendly names like “Mar Y Juana”.  The restaurant and bar competition is intense: if your walk down the street brings you within 30 feet of a restaurant — and it will — then you will be accosted by an excessively friendly person carrying a menu and latching onto you like a remora in an attempt to get you into “his” restaurant/bar.  And if you are looking for a particular restaurant and ask about it — “I’m trying to find Luigi’s” — you will be assured that yep, this is it, regardless of the relationship between that statement and verifiable reality. In short, it’s really all about the cruise ships here, and their hordes of hopefully-free-spending passengers.

But there are some very good restaurants to be found if you know what you are doing, which in our case means having friends who live here. Among our food destinations so far was La Perlita, a little open-air back street place whose specialty is lionfish, which you have probably never had, and which you can see here (not my photo).

Beautiful, isn’t it? That’s the good news. The bad news is that those dorsal spines are venomous as hell — stings can kill children and the elderly — and to add to the fun they are extremely invasive, not native to these waters. People have figured out that they are delicious, however, and so one way to control their population is to eat them. Which we did most enjoyably, doing our part for the environment.

That environment is a beautiful one if you know where to look, which in the case of Cozumel often means underwater. I mentioned that it is famous for its scuba diving, and rightfully so: I went diving yesterday on the well-known Palancar Reef off the southwest coast of the island, and enjoyed one of the best dives I have ever had. At a depth of ~62 ft (19 m) the water visibility was at least 100 ft (30 m) and the variety of sea life stunning: sting rays, sea turtles, moray eels, huge jacks, groupers, parrotfish, angelfish, blennies… it was like a National Geographic episode, and a half day very well spent. (No photos, alas: my small underwater camera would only survive to about half the depth I was at.)

Our island explorations yesterday bought us to Punta Sur (“South Point”), the southernmost point of the island and also home to one of its most beautiful beaches. Such beaches are unfortunately a sort of monetized commodity here: although there are very attractive venues where you can simply go to the beach, large stretches of the most  beach-worthy coastline have been turned into a string of commercial beach parks with admission charges. They offer amenities that include huge inflatable climbing toys (e.g., a Mayan pyramid) anchored a few feet offshore from the sugary sand. I’m not crazy about this; it is apparently deemed insufficient to simply enjoy the view and the water.

The water is on fine display at Punta Sur (at a US$16 admission charge), along with a number of other points of interest, notably a crocodile-filled inland lagoon and a lighthouse that offers a commanding view of the coast.

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Cozumel Playa Sur-6186

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Notice the spectacular color — more accurately colors, plural — of the water. It is responsible for much of the overall beauty of the island, the vegetation itself being largely unimpressive and the animal life restricted to coatis, raccoons, and peccaries. (Those are the mammals; beyond those are copious iguanas and geckos.) But in the photo with the direction signs, notice also the thin line of orange brown stuff where the surf meets the sand. That is the infamous sargassum, mats of stringy algal seaweed. At this location on the island it is a noticeable problem; you can see a line of it along the beach in the panorama photo. When flying from the Yucatan mainland across the channel from Cancun, you can see football field-sized mats of it floating below.

But on the eastern side of the island, it is a crisis. Exposed to the winds from the Caribbean, vast tangles of it are blown ashore in the surf, covering every square inch of beach in thick, tangled, rotting mounds up to a few feet deep. No amount of trucking or shoveling can make a serious dent in it; there is little to do but wait it out and hope that as water conditions change throughout the year the environment will becomes less hospitable to it and less will be formed. We drove down the eastern side, encountering any number of scenes that would have been classically tropically beautiful had they not been overwhelmed with this stuff. I couldn’t bring myself to photograph it.

We made our way down the eastern coast all the way to Punta Sur, then rounded the point and headed back into town to pick up some groceries. Once you leave the tourist area at the waterfront, San Miguel is a typical Central American town: wide dusty streets, lots of storefront mom-and-pop businesses, painted in primary colors and with roll-down aluminum shutters, a sultry slow-moving gestalt. Laura and David are learning the ins and outs of where to go: the best restaurants that only the locals know about; which gas stations to avoid (they don’t reset the counters on the pump when you drive up); which supermarket has the particular items they need.

Today was our 22nd wedding anniversary, so we celebrated with an experiment: our friends wanted to try a recently-opened upscale Japanese restaurant called Shii Fu. I am happy to report that it was excellent.

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Categories: Central America, Mexico | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Coral at Kealakekua Bay

Here’s the promised one-minute drone video from yesterday’s visit to the Captain Cook memorial.

If you think that that Fair Wind tour looks like a lot of fun, you’re right. (No, they are not paying me for the plug. In fact, the crew were not altogether happy to see the drone hovering nearby.) A couple of things are worth noting, notably the proliferation of coral and the stunning clarity of the water. The imagery is not enhanced: it really looks like that. But I have already noticed in increase in the amount of coral bleaching over the years; it is due to both rising water ocean temperatures and some of the ingredients in many sunscreen lotions. Those would be oxybenzone and octinoxate, which interfere with coral reproduction and cause bleaching, and butylparaben, a preservative that may also  cause bleaching. Hawaii has banned the first two, starting in 2021. Interestingly, a lot of dermatologists were opposed to the ban, fearing that it would discourage people from using any sunscreen at all. But in fact the transition has already begun, and the stores are full of reef-safe sunscreens. Their active ingredients are those old standbys, zinc and titanium oxides.

I would also like to bring to your attention one other Captain Cook-related fact that I forgot to mention in yesterday’s post, namely that in addition to his human crew Cook had on board what may be the most well-traveled goat in history.  In 1766, two years before Cook’s first voyage (he reached Hawaii on his second), the HMS Dolphin circumnavigated the globe under the command of Capt. Samuel Wallis. On board was the biologist Joseph Banks, who had brought along his goat to provide milk for the crew. If this were to happen today, Banks would have to pay a $25 Goat Surcharge and store the beast underneath the seat in front of him. But in this case no surcharge was applied and the goat became the first caprine to sail around the world. (It is also the reason that you are now looking up the word “caprine” in the dictionary.)

Two years later, Cook invited Banks on his voyage as well. Banks accepted… and brought along the same goat, which consequently circumnavigated the globe again, this time on the HMS Endeavour. Cook brought the animal home to his farm in England after this voyage, where she lived out her days in unheralded peace. According to Cook’s diary she died on March 28, 1772. Nobody knows the goat’s name. Today she would have an Instagram account.

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So Long, Jim

I’m writing this blog post on February 16, two days later than I ought to, because Valentine’s Day was the 240th anniversary of the death of Captain James Cook, whose third exploration voyage on the HMS Resolution brought him to Hawaii in January of 1778 and made him the first European to see these islands.

Cook initially spent about a month around Kauai and then headed north to explore what is now northern California, Oregon, Vancouver, and southern Alaska. Astutely noticing that those places were cold, he eventually made his way back to Hawaii, cruising around the archipelago before making landfall on the west coast of the Big Island near the village of Kealakekua. (If you’ve ever heard the song “Little Grass Shack” you know how to pronounce it.) He stuck around for about a month, then set sail again, at which point things began to go to hell in the proverbial handbasket.

Shortly after getting underway, the Resolution’s mast broke, and the ship was forced to return to  Kealakekua Bay. A quarrel broke out between the crew and the locals, however, and in the melee a number of men from the village stole one of the Resolution’s cutters, which were small auxiliary boats. Vowing not to negotiate with terrorists, Capt. Cook decided to overreact by attempting to kidnap the king, an effort that ended about as well as you’d expect. Cook was clubbed down, then stabbed to death along with four other crewman. It would be left to future generations to revisit the island and develop the first timeshare condos.

Now Kealakekua Bay is a beautiful marine reserve with crystal waters and abundant fish and coral, marked with a monument to Cook on the shoreline. Here was the scene today, captured by my trusty drone.

Kealakekua Bay 0950-Edit

You can see the monument at left. The boat at right is the Fair Wind II, a local tour operation that brings snorkelers to the otherwise nearly inaccessible bay.  (It’s quite a fun outing: I recommend it if you’re here.) Here are some closer shots of each.

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The inscription at the base of the obelisk reads, “In memory of the great circumnavigator Captain James Cook, R.N. who discovered these islands on the 18th of January, 1778, and fell near this spot on the 14th of February, 1779.” The Hawaiians, needless to say, take issue with the word “discovered” since, having lived here for several hundred years, they knew where it was all along.

(And as for the Fair Wind II, those two long skinny things at the front of the boat are exactly what they look like: water slides. I’ll post some video later showing them in action.)

One of the interesting sidelights to Kealakekua Bay is one that most tourists miss, since it is at the opposite side of the mile-wide bay (and, as it happens, exactly where I launched the drone from). Capt. Cook was brought here to a temple, known in Hawaiian as a heiau. The Hikiau heiau is a solid rectangular stone structure, originally nearly the size of a football field but smaller today. Here’s a view of it from the air:

Kealakekua Bay 0965

The smaller structure at the lower right end is believed to be the lele, the altar. This particular temple is called a luakini, which is a type used for human sacrifices. Sacrifice victims were usually war captives, though sometimes slaves were used. If this practice were followed today I suppose they could grab tourists, but it’s probably a gamble since I imagine that the gods have very mixed feelings about them.

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Cold Water, Hot Water

Yesterday was a watery kind of day, not in the meteorological sense — the weather was surprisingly mild — but in the sense that most of our destinations involved either looking at or being immersed in water. Our first destination was the tourist-heavy Gullfoss waterfall (that “-foss” suffix in fact means “waterfall” in Icelandic), which holds a special place in Icelanders’ hearts because of the repeated failed attempts over the decades to exploit it for hydroelectric power. But, atypically for much of the world, the preservationists have repeatedly prevailed and the site remains pristine if you don’t count the endless stream of tour buses.

The two hour drive to Gullfoss took us pass scenes like these, which in some ways are Iceland as its finest, at least when the weather cooperates.

 

Iceland Gullfoss 2018-001Iceland Silfra 2018-019-Edit

Gullfoss itself is beautiful, large, though not altogether eye-popping in the Niagara or Victoria Falls sense, a pleasing two-tiered cascade through a broad canyon.

Iceland Gullfoss 2018-002Iceland Gullfoss 2018-029-Edit

The wind was ferocious, which seems to be Iceland’s default, and which pretty much buries any ambitions I had of getting any aerial imagery with my drone. (The signs forbidding drones didn’t help either.)

Our next stop was a geyser, and not just any old geyser, but the ur-geyser, the geyser after which all geysers are named. Ever wonder where the word “geyser” comes from?Wonder no more, because here it is:

Iceland Gullfoss 2018-054

This particular site was first noticed (and named) by a local traveler in the year 1249, then lapsed into obscurity for 400 years before being rediscovered as a must-visit destination in the 17th century. Now, if you look carefully at the above photo you may notice a certain lack of geothermal activity, in that, well, there doesn’t actually seem to be a geyser there. That is because in the early 20th century its activity started to diminish. Frustrated tourists — this is a true story — started throwing rocks and garbage into the mouth of the geyser, causing its throat to collapse and thus transmogrifying it into a non-geyser, nearly 700 years after its eponymous discovery. Bottom line: the world’s first named geyser….isn’t one anymore.

Fortunately for the tourism industry, one need only walk about 100 meters from this disappointment to the site of the Stokkur geyser, which erupts satisfyingly every 5-10 minutes.

Iceland Gullfoss 2018-047

After watching a couple of eruptions (“Was it good for you too?”) we ate lunch in the form of a private tailgate party — having visited a supermarket for lunch fixings the previous day — and headed to our final destination of the day, the Solfra volcanic fissure in Thingvellir National Park. Thinkvellir is distinguished by one very important geological feature: the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates runs through it. It is literally the boundary between continents. Here is the basaltic wall that marks the edge of the North American plate:

Iceland Silfra 2018-002-Edit

It’s tall, ominously brownish-gray, and imposing, probably 20 meters tall and looking for all it’s worth like either the entrance to Mordor or the Wall from Game of Thrones. There were no White Walkers in the vicinity (discounting Icelanders’ natural complexion), but there is a notable location, which you can see marked by the flagpole at the right of the photo. That is the original meeting place of the Althing, the Icelandic parliament that has been meeting since the year 930. The chieftains from all over the island would meet there yearly, traveling from all over the island to do so.

The corresponding wall marking the edge of the Eurasian plate is a few kilometers to the east, and the broad plain in between is a sort of geological no man’s land, belonging to neither continent. (This of course causes me to wonder what’s underneath it. Could we, like, jump up and down really hard, break through the ground, and fall all the way to the center of the Earth? Let’s try!)

There is, however, a narrow fissure running parallel to the wall, only a few meters wide in places and about 20 meters deep, fed by a spring whose source is a melting glacier a few kilometers upstream. That means two things: (1) the spring water is filtered through several kilometers of volcanic rock and is thus spectacularly pure and clear (I mean, like distilled water); and (2) the water is seriously ^%$**ing cold, i.e. just a couple of degrees above freezing.

All of which is the lead-in to our snorkeling trip through said fissure, a remarkable experience. We were clad in enormously cumbersome, airtight drysuits. These are highly constricting and basically constrain you to floating on the surface like a straitjacketed Michelin Man. But they do you keep you dry and reasonably warm: the only part of your body that is exposed is your lips, since you need to bite on the snorkel to breathe. So here I am in the channel:

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The water has a vertical visibility of its full depth (~20 m) and a horizontal visibility of about 6-8 times that. You read that right: you can see about 150 meters horizontally through the water. It is like swimming through very viscous blue-green air, quite the unearthly sensation.

There is almost no fish life in the channel, but there is quite a lot of exotic multicolored strands and blobs of algae coating many of the rocks. In some places the channel looks like someone went crazy with cans of Silly String.

There is a place where the channel is narrow enough to touch both sides at once, and of course the tour operators exploit this by taking photos of everyone doing so. They advertise this quite incorrectly as touching both continents at once; our enthusiastic and voluble guide Kate explained all this to us and swore us to utter secrecy. So don’t tell anyone!

Kate herself is worth a mention. A Canadian semi-expat, she spends summers as a tour guide in Iceland. Tall, athletic, and enthusiastic, she is thus the archetype of the 20-something outdoor adventure guide. And she’s got the piece of paper to prove it: her college degree is in (wait for it) “Adventure Tourism”. That is definitely the diploma that you want to have.

After de-drysuiting and downing some hot chocolate, we returned to Reykjavik, ate diner, and went out for a final nighttime view of the Harpa. We’re about to leave for our next destination: the town of Borganes.

Iceland Reykjavik 2018-134

 

 

 

 

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Iceward, Ho!

In less than a week we embark on an itinerary that one could fairly call “eclectic”, even by our peripatetic standards: 10 days in Iceland, followed by 4 days each in Paris in Prague. Why those choices? We’ve been to Paris many times and love it; it’s been 8 years since we were last there, and we felt it was time to go back. Prague has been on our bucket list for some time; we know many people who have visited and come back raving around it. And Iceland seems to have gotten very trendy in the past few years, with hordes of visitors descending upon the little island, so we figured it was time to do our part. Here’s our route, just south of the Arctic Circle:

2018-08-29 20_06_49-Reykjavík, Iceland to Reykjavík, Iceland - Google Maps To give you an ideal of the scale, the island is roughly 400 km across; our driving route, the aptly-named Ring Road (marked in blue) is about 900 miles (1500 km) long. You’d think that 10 days would be more than enough time to cover that distance, but it’ll be tight: a lot of the route is slow going, and of course there is a lot to see along the way. These include geysers, glaciers, waterfalls, volcanic landscapes, glaciers, waterfalls, volcanic landscapes, glaciers, and waterfalls. And geysers.

Some fun facts about Iceland:

  • The native population is about 350,000, but the island hosts over 2 million visitors a year. In other words, if you say to a random stranger, “Þú ert með fallegt land.” (“You have a beautiful country”), the highest-probability response, spoken ver-r-r-y loudly and slowly, is, “SORRY… I… AM… FROM… OMAHA.”
  • Those entertaining-looking glyphs Þ and ð in the previous paragraph are both pronounced “th”. (Fun sub-fact: English used to have such a letter too. Its name was “thorn” — really — and it looked rather like the letter y. So on those pseudo-Olde-English signs that you see that say things like “Ye Olde Haberdashery”, the “ye” is actually the word “the“. You’re welcome.)
  • Speaking of language, modern Icelandic is essentially identical to Old Norse. This means that present-day Icelanders can easily converse with Eric the Red during seances.
  • Iceland is renowned for its impressive variety of remarkably disgusting foods, which include fermented shark and “sour ram’s testicles”. (Research topic: Are there Chinese restaurants in Iceland, and if so do they serve sweet and sour ram’s testicles?) Supposedly they also make really good ice cream and hot dogs. Guess what we’ll be eating.
  • The famous volcano whose massive eruption disrupted North Atlantic air travel in 2010 is named Eyjafjallajökull. Do not be intimidated by the word, for it is actually surprisingly easy to pronounce: just remember that it rhymes with Þeyjafjallajökull.

At an average latitude of 65° — just a hair south of the Arctic Circle — Iceland is not famed for its clement weather. And of course at that latitude, you are stuck in more or less endless night in midwinter, and get to enjoy 24-hour daylight in midsummer. But we’ll be there in September, not far off the equinox, and so neither the temperatures nor the length of the day will be particularly extreme: sunrise will be at about 6:30 AM and sunset around 8:15 PM. The daytime high temperatures will be  about 50° F (11° C), the nights several degrees cooler.

What will be cold is the water, at a cryonic 36° F (2° C). The reason this matters is that we have booked a snorkeling trip (!) at Silfra, a volcanic fissure that is essentially the boundary between the two tectonic continental plates that Iceland straddles. (Hence all the volcanoes and geysers.) It is known for its stunningly clear water, volcanic rock formations, and hypothermic tourists. I’ll report on this when it happens.

Finally, we are of course hoping to see the aurora borealis. This is definitely a crapshoot; we’re at the early end of the season for it, and as of this moment the weather forecast calls for a lot of clouds and rain, at least for the first half of the trip.. But perhaps we will get lucky.

So wish us luck, watch this space, and remember this traditional greeting: “Þjónn, ég pantaði gerjað hákarl en þetta eru hrútur“, which according to Google means, “Waiter, I ordered fermented shark but these are ram testicles.”

 

Categories: Europe, Iceland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Something Fishy This Way Swims

Not much to report today other than an afternoon snorkeling session at Kahalu’u Beach Park here on the Big Island, a few miles south of downtown Kailua and less than a mile from our house. But first a word about beaches…

Say the words “Hawaiian beach” to someone and their immediate mental image is in all likelihood a vast expanse of white sand, lined with palm trees. And it is true that there are a few beaches like that in the islands, most notably Waikiki in Honolulu, though at that particular locale there are probably as many hotels as palm trees. There’s one like that on the Big Island as well, called Hapuna, located a good half hour north of Kona. But remember that these islands are volcanic, which means that most of the beaches are made of coarse black sand, usually punctuated with some ropy hardened pahoehoe lava. (The palm tree part of the mental picture is still accurate, though.) None of this means that you can’t lay out a blanket and pick up a nice case of skin cancer as well as on any white sand beach, but at least now you have the right picture in your head.

Kahalu’u Beach Park is a typical black sand beach in this regard, especially well suited for a beach outing because it fronts on shallow Kahalu’u Bay, protected from the not-always-pacific Pacific by a coral reef a few hundred yards offshore. The bay is in most places less than 7′ (2.2 m) deep and studded with coral outcroppings, making it an excellent snorkeling venue. Its only difficulty is occasional strong currents as the tide goes in and out. But from where we stay, it’s hard to beat both for convenience and for the variety of sea life it supports (notably a colony of green sea turtles, known in Hawaiian as honu). So here are some photos from today’s outing:

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Honu. Some of the turtles in Kahaluu have tracking devices on their backs, courtesy of NOAA researchers

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Ornate Butterflyfish (Kikakapu)

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Yellow Longnose Butterflyfish (Lau Hau)

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Black Surgeonfish (Pualu)

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Left: Threadfin Butterflyfish (Kikakapu). Right: Yellow Tang (Lau’i Pau)

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Left: Yellow Tang (Lau’i Pau). Right: Parrotfish (Uhu)

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A school of yellow tangs (Lau’i Pau)

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Clown Wrasse (Can’t find the Hawaiian name!)

There are many other colorful species that live in the bay, notably a healthy number of reef triggerfish. The reef triggerfish is the state fish of Hawaii and sports one of the best native names of any creature anywhere, ever: humuhumunukunukuapua’a. I once got a discount on a tee shirt by pronouncing this correctly.

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Waves and Ice

We spent our last day on Oahu enjoying two of the iconic experience of the North Shore: waves and shave ice.

Everybody knows about the waves, of course: Oahu’s North Shore is the home of the famous Banzai Pipeline, a renowned surfing venue characterized by big, regular waves. And this season the operative word is “big”: waves have been measured up to 45′ (14m) from trough to peak. That is objectively ginormous, too big even for the pros to ride.

And now a word about the physics of wave riding. Every now and then you’ll see some goofy scene in, say, a science fiction movie about a tsunami, in which some stoner surfer dude rides, like, a hundred-foot wave. That can’t actually happen. Well, the wave can, but riding it can’t: you catch a wave by matching speeds with it, and a wave’s speed increases with its height. A wave that high would be moving like a fast car, and not even Michael Phelps could match his pace with it to shoot that particular curl. (If you ever watch a surfing competition with really big waves, you will see that they actually start by towing the surfers with speedboats to allow them to catch the waves.)

Anyway, the views were spectacular though on the day of our visit the biggest waves were a lot closer to 8′ (2.5m) than five times that, which still rewarded us with sights like these.

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Our other activity, as I mentioned, was shave ice (it had to be food, didn’t it?). Everyone is familiar with shave ice (also called snow cones, though never in Hawaii), but Hawaii has raised it to an art form, with a dizzying array of flavors that ranges well beyond the familiar (e.g., Japanese yuzu fruit, or — I am not kidding – pickled mango). You find it everywhere, from dedicated shave ice stores to street corner pushcarts, and one of its most famous purveyors on the island is Matsumoto’s on the North Shore, which offers 38 flavors.

You choose three flavors (more or fewer if you want); they serve you a grapefruit-sized sphere of snow (and it is pretty much an actual snowball, with that compressed-fluffy consistency) divided into three segments with the appropriate flavored syrup poured over them. You can if you wish add condensed milk and actual ice cream as well.

You eat it with a combination of plastic spoon and a straw to suck down the dregs. I chose coconut cream + lilikoi (passionfruit) + root beer. It was wonderful. Do not judge me.

The next morning (Monday Feb 1) we flew to Kona on the Big Island to begin the main part of our five week stay. Things immediately started out with a glitch because it turned out that I had inadvertently selected the pickup point for our rental car to be a hotel down the coast (near our rental house, as it happens) rather than at the airport. However, this is what we have come to refer to in our travels as an “MSP”, which stands for “Money-Solvable Problem”, the money in this case being given to a taxi driver to bring us to the correct venue.

City of Refuge-018One of the reasons that the Big Island is my favorite part of Hawaii that its geology and geography enforce a remarkable environmental and ecological diversity. You get a taste of this even as your plane lands in Kona and you drive away from the airport afterwards: Kona airport sits about 15 minutes north of town on a blasted lava plain, a rippling moonscape of seemingly frozen asphalt doted with sere, unhappy-looking yellow shrubs. It is stark and, looked at from a certain perspective, pretty, um, ugly; it is not hard to imagine a first time visitor driving away from the airport thinking, I though Hawaii was supposed to be nice. Which it is — very — but you have to have the patience, fortunately not too much of it, to watch the landscape give over to the anticipated beaches and palm trees as you head down the coast. (You never lose the lava altogether, though; it’s what the islands are made of.)

We got to our house mid-afternoon, and were more than pleased with what we found, a very attractive and spacious three bedroom duplex on a hillside overlooking the ocean, the latter a 15-minute walk down the hill. We also met up with our first visitors: our younger son and his wife, who will stay with us for about a week.

City of Refuge-001Our visitors, of course, are all here for much less time than ourselves, and so of course want to pack in as much Hawaiian quality time as possible during their stay, whereas given the length of our sojourn we may opt for a rather uncharacteristic more relaxed pace. But even so, there are some things that must be done on Day One as a matter or priority, and this includes snorkeling. The site we chose is well known as having the best snorkeling on the island, immediately adjacent to an ancient sacred Hawaiian site — and now a National Historic Monument – called the City of Refuge. In Hawaiian it is called (you might want to sit down for this) Pu’uhonua O Honaunau. (Yes, yes, I know how to pronounce it.) Snorkeling aside, it has a remarkable history.

If you lived in ancient Hawaii you may have enjoyed the weather but you were constantly on guard against breaking any of about eight zillion kapu laws. Kapu means “forbidden” and is related to the English word “taboo”. Things that were kapu included looking at the king; allowing the king’s shadow to fall upon you as he passed by; eating a sacred species of fish; wearing someone’s clothing; and (for all I know) ending a sentence with preposition. And although the rules themselves were complicated, their application was simple, since basically everything carried the death penalty. Seriously. Look at the king? Death. Eat a parrot fish at the wrong time of year? Death. Wear white flip-flops after Labor Day? Definitely death.

City of Refuge-015A criminal justice system like that is an invitation to negative population growth unless you offer some kind of occasional out, hence the City of Refuge. A walled compound made of lava rock, situated dramatically on a spit of hard lava jutting out into the rough surf, Pu’uhonua O Honaunau offered a place of absolution if you could get there. Which wasn’t easy, since it is open only on the side of the roiling, rock-strewn sea and its back faces up against the bottom of a steep rocky hillside.

City of Refuge-007But if you did make it there, the priests would take you in and for a certain length of time variously put you to work and engage you in assorted cleansing rituals, the result being that once you had satisfied their requirements you were absolved of your transgression and free to rejoin society without fear of further retribution. Or at least until the king walked by again and you didn’t prostrate yourself fast enough and bingo, you were once again Dead Man Surfing.

The compound is dramatic and even a little spooky, dominated by the sound of the waves and decorated throughout with sacred symbolic carved statues that seem like reminders of the bridge between the sacred and profane.

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It’s somehow fitting that the best snorkeling on the island is here, and though you are not allowed to enter the water from the grounds of the national park itself, there is a small access point, basically a public beach on lava instead of sand, only 100-200 yards away. Getting into the water is a little too exciting for novice snorkelers, as there is a very strong and ceaseless tidal surge that washes up over the flat algae-covered lava flows at water’s edge. You basically have to sit down on a slippery little natural lava shelf and let the next surge carry you away.

It is more than worth it, since the water here, though 10′-25′ (3m – 8m) deep, is clear and alive with colorful marine life: sea turtles, schools of yellow tangs, parrot fish and trumpet fish…. and of course, lots of humuhumunukunukuapua’a. (You knew that was coming, didn’t you?)

We snorkeled for perhaps 45 minutes, my enjoyment sullied only by the belated realization that the small weight in my right swimsuit pocket was my car keys. Twenty years ago this discovery would not have occasioned a second thought — they’re just keys, they won’t fall out and they won’t dissolve! — but in Anno Domini 2016 everything has a computer chip and I worried that the salt water would fry its little car-key-brain and that our rental car would no longer start. Which is exactly what happened.

A place of refuge doesn’t feel like a place of refuge if you’re &&%^*^% stranded there, and so the next two hours were spent arranging for a new (and dry) car key to be couriered to us by taxi from the Hertz desk at the airport, an hour north of where we were stuck. Kind of a bizarre end to the afternoon, although we got bonus irony points when the taxi driver carrying the new key turned out to be the same guy who ferried us to the correct rental car pickup location yesterday. So he now thinks we are idiots, which I cannot altogether rule out.

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City of Refuge and Careless Snorkelers

 

 

 

 

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