Thursday, December 17, 2009

Nothing Says 'Vacation' Like a Holiday Away From the Internet

So that's what I'm doing. I will be on a remote atoll far from the reaches of the cyber world and thus, will not be blogging, checking email or communicating in any way with the outside world for the next three weeks. To me this is bliss. I love writing and my job but replacing these things with fishing, baking bread and swimming half the day with my kids for a few weeks works like a giant cup coffee to kick-start my year.

All the best to you, all my wonderful readers and I hope you too are having a rejuvinating holiday season.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

First Footfall on Pitcairn Island

Shortly after sunrise the rest of the passengers and crew came up on deck and we started to pack and bring our bags up from our bunks. Captain Matt radioed the island and within half an hour we got our first glimpse of Pitcairn culture: the longboat, filled with about a quarter of the island's population coming out to fetch us. We could see them from quite far away so it was suspenseful seeing the boat arrive, wondering how they'd accept me as the journalist and pondering what these infamous people of piracy, isolation and sex scandals would be like. My guess was they'd be pretty nice.

The boat arrived and pulled up alongside the Braveheart. Brenda Christian, a bronzed vivacious woman with broad bare feet was the first to hop on board the Braveheart and start to throw our bags and supplies into the longboat. Her 20-something son Andrew, with long hair and multiple hoop earrings, sat at the bow of the longboat and was in charge of hitching the two boats together through the light waves then untying when it was time to go.
Two older men, with obvious Pitcairn-browned skin and broad faces manned the motor and a few kids and random adults gazed happily at all of us new visitors while some helped pack up our luggage. I'd heard stories about how in high seas you have to literally leap off the side of your ship over big waves into the arms of some pirate-looking local in the longboat. Today however, the sea was calm so, even though it was still a little leap onto the boat and the locals did look like pirates, it wasn't very scary.

A bearded man with glasses who didn't really look like the rest of the locals came over to sit next to me in the boat and introduced himself as Simon; he told me I was going to stay at his and his wife's house. The boat chugged around the rocky outcrop where we had seen the sunrise and we got our first glimpse of Adamstown - or at least the several houses perched on the cliff near the miniscule settlement. Soon we reached Bounty Bay, a small marina (with a big boat shed) precariously jutting out from below the cliffs. As we jetted in I read the large sign stating "Welcome to Pitcairn Island" - unbelievable, I was here, the last remnants of the Bounty were scattered along the bottom somewhere in the vicinity. The air was cool, I felt like I was in a dream.

About another third of the population was there at the dock waiting for us on their quad bikes, the main means of transport on the island. Simon helped me get my bag on his quad and, before I had much of a chance to take in the rest of the scene or say hi to anyone, we were motoring up the Hill of Difficulty, which is as steep as the name entails. Then we went through Adamstown, which is made up of a few houses, a complex with a post office and town hall, a tiny store and a prison. The school I'd later find out was on the outskirts of town.

Simon and his wife, who are British and American respectively, run the small community store and are the only non-Pitcairners living on Pitcairn. Their house is on a lovely bluff with 180-degree views out to sea. My room turned out to be a whole house with a living room, kitchen, bedroom and a shower but the toilet was the most rudimentary pit toilet I have ever seen - cowboy-style wooden door and all. Not that I minded.

There was a lot to do at the store with all the new supplies coming in so Simon asked if I didn't mind if he left me for awhile. He'd come get me in an hour or so to show me around the island and introduce me to people. No problem, I said, I still felt the boat's motion, was tired and had a lot to take in.

Please click on 'Pitcairn Island' at the right of this page under 'labels' to read my two previous posts about my trip to Pitcairn: Trying to Get There and Voyage to Pitcairn. I'll keep continuing the story over the next few months.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

The Winning Pearl

Voila. My husband was finally able to get a photo of the 10mm round "A" grade natural color Tahitian pearl worth $200 that Kamoka Pearls is giving away for Passports With Purpose. Proceeds go to build that now near-famous school in Cambodia plus the increasingly plentiful overflow funds will go to other good causes in the area. So here is the pearl in all it's glory. To me it says "pendant" but I'm sure it would be great as a ring too.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Amazing! One Week of Donations Brings in Enough Money to Build a Cambodian School

I'm really, really impressed. In one week Passports With Purpose has made over $13,000 from $10 bids on donated prizes including cameras, stays at top hotels and a beautiful Tahitian pearl from yours truly. This is way more interest than I think anyone had expected and is great news to start the week. Bidding is still open till December 21st and there's still a chance that new prizes will be added so please click over and help out!

Monday, November 30, 2009

Passports With Purpose: Help Build a School in Cambodia

Sometimes the universe hurdles us in a certain direction. One week ago I returned from an amazing but too short trip to Cambodia at the tail end of a Lonely Planet research gig through Thailand. I mostly did the tourist stuff on my short vacation - visited Angkor Wat and made a brief stop in Phnom Penh - but I was incredibly touched by unencumbered kindness of the people. Somehow the history of the country seems to resonate through them yet they're coming out of the dark ages and that fills the air with an inspiring positivity. It's intense, there's no other way to describe it. Cambodia is a much poorer country than Thailand and stray children, needy people and landmine victims are omni-present. In Phnom Penh I was lucky enough to spend an evening with a group of expats - every one of them involved in some sort of NGO or aid program. The experience made me want to pack up my life in Tahiti and do something more useful with my life. I was dreaming about how I could make it back to Cambodia the second I was on the plane - rarely has such a short visit charmed and haunted me so much.

Today I came across an opportunity not to go back to Cambodia but to at least give something back. The annual Passports With Purpose fundraiser is supporting American Assistance for Cambodia (AAfC) this year with a goal to raise $13,000 to build a rural school. The AAfC has already built 400 schools throughout the country as well as other actions aimed at improving opportunities for the youth and rural poor in Cambodia.

This is how you can help: travel bloggers like me offer a prize and blog about the fundraiser to encourage people to bid on the many available prizes from myself and other bloggers. My prize is an A-grade round Tahitian pearl from Kamoka Pearl Farm worth $200 mailed to your doorstep anywhere in the world. By making a $10 donation you can bid on the pearl as well as all sorts of other great stuff from brand name travel packs and camcorders to stays at hotels in major American cities. One hundred percent of the donations go to the AAfC. You can bid from today to December 21st 2009.

So please, click over to the Passports With Purpose website and enter to win! There is really no way to loose on this.

I'll be posting a picture of the pearl as soon as I can - hopefully within the next week. In the meantime you can check out where it comes from at

Sunday, November 29, 2009

My Favorite Maa Tahiti

It's my first weekend back home after nearly a month in Southeast Asia so I decided to try and get back into the island groove with one of my favorite things in Tahiti: maa tahiti, traditional Polynesian food baked in an earth oven. Now not all earth-cooked meals are equal; in fact they can go terribly wrong if the fire isn't hot enough, the food is uncovered too early, the food isn't fresh to begin with or if the food packages were prepared too lazily. One of my biggest pet peeves is when my favorite dish, poulet fafa gets prepared with spinach instead of authentic taro leaves - it just doesn't taste the same.

Today I indulged in what I think is the best maa tahiti on Tahiti, served at the Botanical Gardens Restaurant right next to said gardens and the Musee Guaguin. This place, in what should be the heart of tourist land but never gets any tourists, is one of my favorite places to eat in my area. The food is always fantastic and it's a simple down-home Tahitian style place with gravel floors, plastic chairs and Tahitian fabrics stapled on to the ceiling for decoration. The restaurant is right on the lagoon against a low breakwater, so you sometimes get splashed if the waves are too big; on weekends there's often a synth band playing cheesy Tahitian dance hall hits. Today the place was packed with a large party of old Tahitian women dressed up in their best and most colorful dresses, strings of black pearls and flower crowns. They were living it up, laughing and drinking cheap red wine bottle after bottle. Not a tourist was in sight despite the tour bus parked at the entrance to the gardens.

But back to the food. My daughter and I decided to split the maa tahiti plate (about US$40; only available on Sundays), which is always huge, but when it arrived we all had to laugh because it could have comfortably fed three very hungry people. Every dish was perfect. I'm not a huge meat eater but the pork had a caramelized crispy layer on the fatty parts and tasted like candy. I had to restrain myself from eating too much of it. The poisson cru (raw fish salad - click here for my recipe) was fresh with a perfect lemon and coconut milk balance; the poulet fafa had plenty of fafa (taro leaves), which is time consuming to prepare so often places skimp on it; there was perfectly cooked taro, bananas and sweet potatoes; pua choux, a pork and cabbage stew; and last a whole separate plate of delicious poe banane, a baked banana pudding topped with coconut milk. Many restaurants make maa tahiti in conventional ovens but at the Botanical Gardens Restaurant you can faintly taste the wood smoke from their ahimaa (pit oven), which gives it a more complex flavor.

Now I feel home. We finished off the meal with a long walk in the gardens while the restaurant kept our copious leftovers in their fridge for us. I think I'm having pork for breakfast tomorrow morning.

PS Now I'm back home I'll be back to blogging more regularly again!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Top 10 Natural Ways to Stay Healthy in the Tropics

Aaah paradise: warm weather, beautiful turquoise water and lazy days. But then after a while your head starts to itch, your feet start to peel and your ears hurt. This happens to the best of us but seems to hit first-time visitors the hardest. Don't despair because there are some really basic, all-natural ways to get on with the good life.

1) Coral cuts - lemon juice (yes it hurts like hell) while they're still fresh then scrub the wound hard with soap and water. Keep the cuts clean and covered, stay out of the water and change the bandage after showering every day.

2) Swimmers' ear prevention - after swimming in salt water always rinse your ears out with fresh water then dry them out with a towel. This gets the salt off and it's the salt that keeps the ears moist and causes infection.

3) Stone fish stings and centipede bites - apply the hottest thing you can handle immediately to neutralize the poison. I know a guy who didn't have to go to the hospital after stepping on a stonefish because he put his lit cigarette out on the puncture. Better a scar than long-term pain and possible death.

4) Foot fungus - soak foot in hot water with a cap-full of vinegar in it for about an hour.

5) Staph infections on the feet - soak foot in the hottest water you can stand with a cap-full of bleach in it till the water turns cold. Then clean off all the goop, bandage and keep clean and dry. This works great on any infections that can be soaked.

6) To get rid of head lice - saturate your head with olive oil and leave it on about 5 hours. This works better than any commercial lice shampoo even though it's messy and a complete hassle. A few drops of lavender, citronella, thyme and/or eucalyptus essential oils in the olive oil help too.

7) Cockroach infestations - put out boric acid anywhere domestic animals can't reach it then put out 'beer traps' - about an inch of beer at the bottom of a slick bowl. The roaches climb in, get drunk, can't get out and drown - swear to God.

8) Sunburn - aloe is great but Tahitian Tamanu oil works wonders if you can find some.

9) To keep away mosquitoes and noseums at a picnic - build a smoky fire. This is pretty effective but you have to keep at least semi-inside the smoky part for it to work.

10) Getting laughed at by locals for being afflicted with any of the above problems - drink the rest of the beer you didn't give to the roaches and open cold fresh ones for the rest of the crew. Laugh and enjoy.

Note: I'm not a doctor but these tricks have worked for me. If you squirt lemon in your eye instead of your coral cut, accidentally pour beer in your ear instead of water or do anything else stupid (or not) because of this list, I am not responsible.

Also the above photo is of my son Tevai, lover of centipedes.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Voyage to Pitcairn: The Good Ship Braveheart & Our Arrival

On Tuesday September 23rd, 2008, the Pitcairn-bound Braveheart picked me up in Mangareva, French Polynesia. Captain Matt Jolly was a pirate/surfer-looking guy in his mid to late twenties with a constant smile and an assuring presence. Also on board were an optometrist (who was visiting for three days like me), Jacqui Christian (a pretty, confident Pitcairner in her mid-thirties), the rosy-cheeked Pitcairn school teacher coming back from vacation, an older woman from the Warren family (who was instantly wary of me - the journalist - and hardly said hello) and her teenage niece who was coming to visit family; all were arriving from New Zealand. Three more young and hip Kiwi surfer-types made up the rest of the Braveheart crew.

The boat was much more comfortable than I'd expected. It's a sturdy 39-meter steel ship, freshly swabbed and with several cozy air-con bunks below. We got a tour, chatted with each other then, just as we began motoring away from port, went to the dining area for an early dinner.

"Oh no not spaghetti again!" laughed the school teacher. "They serve this every time because they know it comes out your nose when you get sick." Everybody giggled knowingly.

Now I get really, really seasick but I was determined to flex my strongest sea leg muscles on this trip. I'd taken some good seasickness tablets and decided that no spaghetti was coming out of my nose, no way. Still, the motion of the ocean was already getting to me and just the thought of barfing noodles made me queasy so I didn't eat much.

The sun was setting and the lagoon was calm so I went up to the control room hoping to chat with the lively crew. Matt got out a picture album and showed me some of the other journeys the Braveheart has made: Antarctica, the southern Tuamotus, Kerguelen Island and more. The crew is into surfing, climbing, fishing and a slew of other adventurous activities and it looked like they were having a ball manning the ship even through mighty 16-meter swells in the Southern Ocean. Suddenly my life as a Lonely Planet writer seemed very boring. Just as suddenly, we left the lagoon and the sea got much rougher. Within about two minutes I knew that I'd better get to my bunk or I'd be spraying spaghetti all over my new super-cool friends.

And that was it. For 36 hours I lay comatose in the dark listening to my i-pod and feeling like hell. I threw up once in the conveniently placed bucket next to my bed (no spaghetti out of my nose I'm proud to say), ate a few dry crackers with jam brought in by the crew and just meditated. When finally I felt the boat stop and heard some commotion I got up.

Up on deck the sun was just rising from behind Pitcairn, the air was crisp but warm, the sea dark but calm. The feeling of this moment is hard to describe. All I could think of was how the Bounty mutineers must have felt when they first saw Pitcairn and I wondered if they too first glimpsed the island at sunrise. Only the optometrist and I were on deck and we just smiled knowingly in silence. There we were, watching the sun come up at one of the most remote destinations on earth.

Friday, October 23, 2009

My Packing Technique - Or, I Suck at Packing and Have Bad Clothes

Back before I was juggling two kids and a travel career, packing seemed easy-peasy and generally took me about an hour if not less. I never forgot anything important. I'd be making mental lists a week or so prior and then, when the time came, I'd just throw it all in my pack and it was done. This method simply doesn't work for my scattered and overworked brain anymore; so much so that I can't remember ever having the kind of mental clarity where that would have actually worked.

I've learned this the hard way. The last trip I went on (to the US where I got to pack a great big rolling suitcase for a change) I packed in my old-style, quick way and I forgot my toothbrush for the first time ever. As a travel professional this is pretty lame, but it's not the worst thing I've ever forgotten. On business trips I've forgotten to pack business cards, my brief, my camera, my razor, and so on; once for a seven week research trip to Canada I forgot to pack a bra.

So for my upcoming trip I'm going back to a technique that rarely fails me. My beautiful new travel pack (that deserves a blog entry of its own) is now officially open on the floor in my bedroom. The one-week countdown to my three week research trip to Thailand officially starts today so I'm going to make sure all the clothes I want to bring are clean (I have to start this early because I live in the developing tropics and don't use a dryer). Meanwhile I'm making lists and tossing everything I might need in my bag as I think of them. The day before I leave I'll go through everything and remove about 80% - then I'll be ready to go.

The other thing I'm terrible at is travel fashion. When I'm on the road I look like shit. You'd think that by now I'd have some sort of technique for looking remotely decent in sweltering developing countries, some great gear-clothes that weather the hard-knocks, but I don't. The worst is that I run into women on the road all the time who look fantastic. On my last trip to Malaysia I traveled with a Chinese girl who was carrying a pack smaller than mine, was on a serious long-haul budget, camped everywhere and yet she managed to look like she stepped off the pages of a travel fashion spread every morning. I on the other hand had my two pairs of capris and three shirts that were on the verge of falling apart, were stained, stretched and faded making me look somewhere between a down-and-out Stevie Nicks and a sand creature. My Chinese friend felt sorry for me and gave me a pair of her capri trousers which, bless her, managed to make me look less like a street person for about a week.

So although I'm the 'professional' who should be writing articles on this stuff and dolling out tips, I just suck at packing. I've looked for articles on the subject and nothing helps. Perhaps it's just one of those innate talents you're born with, some gene that I lack. In any case, I'm always up for suggestions. Maybe somehow, someday, I'll pack a bag weighing 5kg that contains everything I need to live in the bushes and still look chic and polished. Till then, I'm just going to embrace the adventure of buying new toothbrushes in foreign countries and looking bad while I do it. I'll just smile a lot and that I've found, will get you through anything.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Audio Slideshow: Phuket Vegetarian Festival

In honor of the Phuket Vegetarian Festival that starts today and runs till October 26th, I thought I'd post this audio slide show of the pictures I took when I went to the festival in 2007. My husband thinks my commentary sounds too serious and dramatic (he wasn't at the festival with me) so he made me think that maybe my pictures aren't saying the "thousand words" I thought they were. The festival is very, very dramatic - I'd say the most dramatic event I've ever been too. Don't watch this slide show if you faint at the sight of blood.

Every year during the first nine days of the ninth lunar month of the Chinese calendar, certain southern Chinese Thais celebrate "Taoist Lent" with this festival. Besides abstaining from meat, participants make a procession through town, many piercing their cheeks with everything from needles and spikes to lampshades and machine guns. Others saw their tongues or flagellate themselves with sharp objects so they bleed profusely; some walk across hot coals. Meanwhile shop owners set up alters offering tea, fruit, flowers, incense and more to the procession participants who, in a trance-like state act as mediums of the Nine Emperor Gods. It's all done for the sake of purification and definitely qualifies as a religious frenzy especially once all the firecrackers start popping, making the streets look and feel like a crazed, smoky war zone.

For more info about this event go to - there are also Vegetarian Festivals in Krabi Town, Trang and a few other towns on the Thai Andaman Coast at the same time.

All the following photos were taken by me in 2007. What I don't have pictures of are all the fabulous vegetarian food stalls that open up during the festival. While I saw quite a few tourists during the procession I hardly saw any "farang" faces at these food stalls and they were great places to laugh and chat with locals. Lots of dumplings, soups and Thai curries - yum!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Voyage to Pitcairn Island: Trying to Get There

It all started with a Lonely Planet conference in Melbourne, Australia. As part of the schedule, our large group of about 30 authors plus some editors and staff were invited over to the Wheeler's house for dinner and soon I found myself chatting with Tony about some of the very obscure Pacific islands (such as Wallis & Futuna and the Austral Islands) that only he and I had ever researched. When I mentioned to him that I had fantasies of updating Pitcairn Island for the upcoming South Pacific book, his eyes lit up. Soon several of us were around a coffee table gazing at one of Tony's prized possessions, a replica of the Bounty carved by Fletcher Christian's great, great, great, (great?) grandson that he had bought when he stopped on Pitcairn years ago on a north-bound icebreaker ship.

And that was all I needed to get me going. Once I was back home on Tahiti I managed to talk the editor for the South Pacific guide into agreeing that it was high time someone went Pitcairn and that obvious someone was me. It worked, I got offered the job, but I had no idea how hard it was going to be to get there.

I looked for cargo ships and cruise ships; nothing. I looked online for sailboats looking for crew with even less luck. I did find one small vessel that was planning a rustic cruise to the islands but the dates were way outside my deadline. My break finally came when I contacted the Pitcairn home office in New Zealand and the secretary recommended I contact the Braveheart. The ship had been chartered by the British government to bring the school teacher back from holiday, two children visiting from school in New Zealand and an optician to check the islanders eyes. The cost was $5000 return for the 36 hour crossing from the already remote French Polynesian island of Mangareva. It took some needling to get the funds, but I did it and secured my ticket for passage and a three-day visit to Pitcairn Island.

Before I could confirm though I had get permission from the islanders to visit. I had to write a letter stating why I wanted to visit which would be reviewed at a town meeting on Pitcairn and then a vote would be made deciding if they'd take me or not. After some Internet research I discovered that Pitcairners hate journalists. Thanks to Cathy Marks and Dea Birkett, two writers who (within a few years of each other) spent a few months on the island and wrote scathing books about the twisted social set up on the island. Journalists were categorically refused. Luckily I knew that the islanders would probably remember Tony from his visit. My ex-father in law had also spent a few months living with a family on Pitcairn so I asked him to write me a letter of recommendation. It worked, I got accepted and was thus to become the first journalist to set foot on the island since the 2004 sex trials.

Note: all Pitcairn photos by Celeste Brash

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Video: Teahupoo Billabong Pro Surf Contest 2008

The ocean is so flat today that it's hard to imagine the surf ever getting this big! Honestly, I like it when it's calm like today since it's so perfect to swim in, but here's a video I shot of the Teahupoo monster when it's clacking it's massive jaws. Enjoy.

If the video doesn't appear (sorry but I'm not the tech person in the world) you can find it on LPTV.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Recipe: Mediterranean-Polynesian Tuna Carpaccio

Taken from the idea of beef carpaccio which was apparently created at Harry's bar in Venice in the 1950s, the Tahitian twist of making it with fresh, raw tuna has become such a success that you can find this dish at nearly every restaurant in French Polynesia. Personally, it's an all time favorite of mine when poisson cru feels to rich and sashimi too plain. This is a true fusion dish that takes most of its flavors from the Mediterranean.

As with my poisson cru recipe, you could experiment using different types of fish. I've never tried this dish with anything besides tuna but it could theoretically work with halibut, trevally or salmon.

Mediterranean-Polynesian Tuna Carpaccio
½ to 1lb fresh tuna cut into paper-thin slices
4 Tbsp olive oil
1 Tsp lemon juice
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
3 cloves garlic, pressed
1 Tbsp grated ginger
3 Tbsp strained capers
1/4 cup chopped onion
½ cup chopped tomato
¼ cup chopped parsley
salt and pepper to taste

I find that tuna is more easily cut into paper-thin slices if it's been frozen and thawed slightly. If it's soft it gets gooey and you're slices will be thicker and not as pretty. Lay the slices on a large plate in a rose pattern as you cut them and refrigerate. Chop the onion, tomato, parsley and set aside. In a small bowl combine the olive oil, lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, garlic, ginger and salt and pepper. Remove the tuna from the refrigerator and pour the olive oil mixture evenly over the top reserving about one Tbsp in the bowl. Spread the tomatoes, capers, onions and parsley over the tuna then drizzle the remaining olive oil mixture over the top. Serve with white rice.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

How To: Travel French Polynesia by Supply Ship

Long gone are the days when you could easily hop on any supply ship to travel around French Polynesia. Air Tahiti now flies to 48 of the 65 inhabited islands, great news if you need to get anywhere quickly but terrible news if you're on a budget. The airline has some of the most expensive domestic fares in the world, and new regulations that have forced many supply ships to stop taking passengers have made flying oftentimes the only option.

Right now in September 2009, there are only three cargo ships left that take passengers to the Tumaotus (the Mareva Nui, Kura Ora and the Marie Stella); there are no boats besides the expensive (but worth it) Aranui to the Marquesas; one boat to the Australs (the Tuhaa Pae); one to the Gambier (the Nuku Hau) and only one for the Society Island circuit (the Hawaiki Nui going from Papeete-Huahine-Raiatea-Tahaa-Bora Bora and back). Because there are less spaces available, the boats book up during school vacations but outside of these times you can usually get on no problem. To get a place on the boat you'll have to go to the company's office or talk to the boat captain directly at the docks at Fare Ute in Papeete. I have all the phone numbers for the offices and directions about how to get there in my Lonely Planet guidebook to Tahiti & French Polynesia.

Bring your own bedding, snacks (some of the boats provide meals and others don't), baby wipes (especially if you won't have shower access), lots of water, sea sickness pills, something to pass the time during those long ocean stretches and of course, sense of adventure.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Traveling French Polynesia by Supply Ship Part 5

First thing in the morning we started unloading supplies in Manihi, an atoll I know well from the days we used to fly there before Ahe got an airport. Manihi's village is right at the very short but deep pass and is one of my least favorite villages in the archipelago. The dock area is pleasant, with a big ancient tree you can sit under for shade and a little store to get a cold drink, but the rest of the village is strangely over-run with concrete and everyone has big walls or fences enclosing their yards. The closed off yards make the village feel closed off and empty too since everyone is hidden behind their fences, watching TV or doing whatever it is they do.

Jasmine and I went to try and find an old dear friend, Mama Tepuku who is in her 70s and who spends about half her time in Manihi. I asked around and strangely no one knew who I was talking about. I guess it just seemed too weird for anyone to register that these two random white girls with accents would be asking for an old Paumotu lady who hardly spoke any French. Finally we found Tepuku's house and were greeted by a 20-something man who, looking at us only from the corner of his eye, yelled into the house that some white girls, "des dames blanches," were there. A pudgy local girl with a toddler came out and told us that no, Tepuku wasn't on Manihi right now but invited us in for a drink. Ends up she was Tepuku's niece and knew who I was and we had a nice chat. Afterwards we went back to the dock where we ran into a few other old friends so it was a pleasant stop.

A few hours later we were docking at Ahe, our final stop where we had a near hero's welcome from all our friend's in the village as well as my husband who came with the outboard to pick us up. An arrival after flying just doesn't compare - everyone knew we had spent days getting there and it was more like meeting long lost family after months on the Oregon trail than greeting someone after clearing customs.

In all, traveling by supply ship is the Polynesian equivalent of a US road trip, stopping in random towns, eating where you can and making friends along the way. You need time to travel this way but that's the beauty of it. By the end of the boat voyage my body had lost every ounce of stress, all sense of time and any notion of a pressure to get somewhere. Sitting and doing nothing besides staring at the sea now seemed normal and pleasant and in a sense this made me feel much, much more Polynesian.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Recipe: Perfect Anywhere Brownies

I love brownies but here in Tahiti I was never able to make them just right. The flour is somehow different, you can't get baker's chocolate or chocolate chips and nuts cost a fortune. So, I was very happy to find this, the most basic of recipes that gives the most splendid fudgy on the inside, crinkly and chewy on the outside brownie. The ingredients are so ordinary and this is so easy that you could make these just about anywhere on the planet. I could even make these out on Ahe where there isn't even a flushing toilet! Seriously, this is one for the road.

Now this is a fancy suggestion, and not useful if you're in the Sahara, a remote atoll or the like, but my husband has a wheat allergy so I tried these with gluten free flour (I use Bob's Red Mill All-Purpose GF Flour) and they were even chewier, gooier and delicious than usual. I usually make the brownies without chocolate chips/chunks or nuts because I don't have these available to me but the addition of either or both of these brings the whole brownie experience to another level. Enjoy!

The World's Easiest and Best Brownies

¾ cup butter

1 ½ cups sugar (I use raw sugar)

2 eggs

3 tsp vanilla, rum or very strong dark coffee (depending on what you have available - or nothing)

½ cup 100% cocoa (NOT hot chocolate mix, you need unsweetened pure chocolate cocoa)

¾ cup plain flour (NOT self-raising)

1 tsp salt

¾ cup nuts (optional)

½ cup chocolate chips or dark chocolate cut into small, coarse pieces (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and grease a 9 inch baking dish.

Melt the butter slowly in a medium sized saucepan. When it's melted, remove from heat and stir in sugar. Give it a few stirs and let the sugar dissolve into the cooling butter for a few minutes. Add in the eggs and vanilla (rum or coffee). Beat until smooth. Add the cocoa and flour (I crush all the lumps with a fork and haven't found I needed to sift) and stir for 1-2 minutes, until the batter is smooth and shiny. Stir in chocolate chips/chunks and/or nuts. Pour the batter into the baking dish and bake for about 20-25 minutes, until the top just begins to loose its liquid look. You're much better off undercooking these than overcooking so pay attention and keep checking on them - if you overcook them they'll get cake-like instead of fudgy.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A Perfect Day at Te Pari

I'm going to let you in on a secret. OK it's not a big secret, this place is in all the guidebooks (including mine, the Lonely Planet) and tourist literature, but since no one seems to go it sure feels like a secret. I'm talking about the Fenua Ahiere and Te Pari, the 'lost coast' of Tahiti that is only accessible by boat or on foot. Fenua Aihere means 'the bush country' in Tahitian and Te Pari means 'the cliffs.' The habitated, flat jungle coast of the Fenua Aihere runs southeast from the village of Teahupoo for about 10km till the fringing exterior reef ends and the cliffs , Te Pari, begin. No one lives on this steep coast where the open ocean crashes against sharp volcanic cliffs.

Yesterday my family and I took advantage of a perfect, calm sunny day to hike along the wild Te Pari cliffs. The hillsides are covered in a jungle of pandanus, coconut palms and ferns and are cut every now and then by a waterfall, river, white sand beach or a land-linked coral outcrop. The trail is muddy, skinny and sometimes so steep that ropes have been attached to guide you along, but the effort is worth it. From two different vantage points we spotted humpback whales spouting and thrashing their tails; we bathed in three waterfall pools, ate uto (the spongy interior of a germed coconut), climbed up a lava tube (an elongated shallow cave with a river running through it); and, not so great, got devoured by mosquitoes. This was a beautiful Sunday and we didn't see any other people at all.

The reason more people don't go to the Te Pari is that you either need a boat or walk 10km alongthe Fenua Aihere, which takes all day. The numerous river crossings required to hike the Fenua Aihere means most of your gear will get wet plus all the vicious dogs make the walk less pleasant. Even if you have a boat you need to park it and if you don't know the owners of the two docks near the Te Pari entrance, this can be difficult to manage. The best way to visit the area if you're boatless and on vacation is to call Michael at Teahupoo Excursions ( who leads excellent, fun a la carte day trips to the area. You might also be able to talk Michael into dropping you off and picking you up later if you want to hike alone. The other option is to hire a hiking guide (contact the hiking guide organization at and make the two-day overnight trek all the way to Tautira on the other side of the island. I did this a few years ago and it was the best trek I have ever taken in my whole entire life. It's quite demanding and adventurous though (think: swinging on a rope from one rock to another quick enough to avoid getting pounded by incoming surf), so it's not for everyone. The technicality as well as the poorly marked trail, make the two-day trek a dangerous undertaking if you don't have someone who knows the area to show you the way.

So, I have to say that Te Pari is my favorite spot in all of French Polynesia and I've been to countless islands and atolls in every archipelago. There are so many hidden coves, caves, archaeological remains, waterfalls, beaches and vistas to discover that I think I'll never get tired of it. The area's open-to-the-elements geography means that it's miserable to visit during big swells, rain or high winds - and there's at least one of these elements at large most of the year - so it's a special occasion to find that perfect day and explore.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Traveling French Polynesia by Supply Ship Part 4

We returned the ship after our tour of Vin de Tahiti's vineyards and wine tasting at the cellar in Avatoru village. I had assumed we'd be leaving Rangiroa after the Avatoru stop, but not so, first we had to anchor off of Tiputa, the atoll's other village (which is actually the capital although it's much smaller than Avatoru). Because the boat didn't dock, we had to stay on the boat but this was OK since we got to watch the crew perform amazing feats, lowering huge crates, cars, motorbikes and more, down off the boat with the crane and onto a barge which then transported the supplies to the village. The lagoon was calm and the late afternoon sun wasn't too strong so Jasmine and I just found a seat on the deck and watched the show.

The job was done by about 5pm, which proved to be perfect timing. Every afternoon at about this time, pods of dolphins come to play in the Tuputa pass so they all played in our boat's wake as we set out to sea.
Jasmine and I sat up at the bow completely captivated by how many dolphins were in the pass and around the boat. With the afternoon light, the salty cool air and the thought that we'd soon be reaching our destination, this was one of our best moments of the trip. When the sun set and the sea got more rough we went back to our bunks for our last night on the boat.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Video: Liz Clark and the Voyage of Swell

This is a video about my friend Liz Clark who is solo sailing around the world on her boat Swell. Liz is an adventurer like no other, a fearless surfer, impressive diver, fisherwoman, eco-warrior and an inspiration to us all. I'm looking forward to seeing the full movie called "Dear & Yonder."

With all this in her favor, it might sound weird that what impresses me most about Liz is that she can climb a coconut tree. Seriously, it's really really hard to do. The first time I met her, she had been invited to a party on our Tuamotu pearl farm and, being that she was short on supplies but wanted to contribute, she brought over about twenty drinking coconuts she had collected herself. This, we all knew, must have taken hours of work climbing up tall trees like a monkey. At this moment all the guys on the farm fell irrevokably in love with her.

After months in the Tuamotus and other remote archipelagos Liz spent a few months here in Teahupoo, Tahiti - now she's in Raiatea repairing her boat. Wherever she's been with us, she's always added lots of life and been a great addition to the community.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Turning Coral Into Wine - Vin de Tahiti

I've visited the Vin de Tahiti vineyards on Rangiroa Atoll twice now: once for Lonely Planet and the second time to take photos for an Islands magazine article. It is one of the more surreal places I have ever been.

The crazy idea to start a vineyard and winery on a tropical atoll with no volcanic soil or stable fresh water source came from an extremely wealthy, wine-loving French businessman named Dominique Auroy. It's said that Auroy decided to create the vineyards because French Polynesia imports so many bottles of wine per year it seemed silly for the islands not to produce its own. Ironically, production has been geared almost entirely for tourism and export.

Still, visiting the vineyards is a must on Rangiroa (it's 8000 CFP - about US$100 - for a guided visiting plus tasting). All those struggling vines winding their way out of coral soil between the coconut trees is one of the country's strangest juxtapositions. It's hot, it's muggy and it's by no means organic. Vin de Tahiti's winemaker has assured me that the ground water on the vineyard's islet is perfectly sweet, but there is a testing station that the water is pumped through to check its salinity before it waters the vines (that are on a drip system). Having lived on an atoll for five years and knowing how unusual a fresh water table this immense is, I am a little skeptical of how long the fresh water will last and wonder if the vineyards are frivolously sapping the island of a very precious resource.

The next issue is the vast amounts of chemical fertilizers needed to turn what is essentially sand into rich, Mediterranean quality soil. Again, a whole station is set up for adding this cocktail of substances to the water before it makes its way to the vines. I am unsure if there have been studies about what the run off does to the fragile surrounding coral reefs but common sense tells me there must be a fairly large impact.

The surprise ending is the wine. Vin de Tahiti makes five types of wines: red, rose, dry white, coral white and mellow white. I am no wine expert but my father was a wine educator in California's Napa Valley and my husband's family is from Bordeaux - I have grown up with and love good wine (especially red) but I am not one to go headlong into complicated terminology and cryptic fruit and vegetable oriented remarks. Of Vin de Tahiti's wines, the sweet mellow white is by far my favorite mostly because it's syrupy sweet and is great ice cold - a real plus in the tropics. The Rose and other whites are drinkable but certainly not worth the $40 price tag - you are paying for novelty value here not taste. The red is so awful it can hardly be described as wine. I've had to write about it with phrases like "unlike any wine you've ever tasted," and "unique," but there you go, truth is I think it's terrible. But don't take my advice, on Rangiroa you can try all the wines at Vin de Tahiti's lovely, air-conditioned tasting room that requires an undisclosed amount of petrol to fuel the generator.

Yes, Vin de Tahiti isn't the most eco-friendly wine in the world, but it might be the most interesting. You can find out more about them at

Note: photos this blog by Celeste Brash

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Traveling French Polynesia by Supply Ship Part 3

For some reason that we never figured out, the boat anchored somewhere (we were in our bunks by this time so I don't know where we were) and we didn't make it to Rangiroa till dawn. Jasmine and I climbed out of our bunks when we felt the movement of the boat change from an open ocean roll to the steadiness of an atoll entry and we were up at the bow as we glided through Avatoru pass into the atoll's immense lagoon (Rangiroa is the second biggest atoll in the world). I think that arrivals and departures are definitely the highlight of taking the supply ships. With the wind in your hair, the first morning light reflecting off perfect turquoise, the excitement of arrival and the complete silence besides the putter of your clunker's engine, it's the quintessential moment of a tropical adventure. Jasmine, at age 11, could feel this as well as me, and she radiated with appreciation of island magic.

The first stop was the Avatoru quay which had much of the same hustle and bustle that we saw in Tikeahau only on Rangiroa there were more flashy pick up trucks and less people at the dock. Rangiroa is the most developed and populated atoll of the Tuamotus, and it was obvious that the arrival of our cargo ship was less of an interesting event here than elsewhere in the archipelago. Someone in each family had the job of picking up all the stuff while everyone else had better things to do - on other atolls, there is very little else to do so everyone comes out to the boat!

This stop was going to be several hours (a big population means lots of stuff to unload) but luckily Jasmine and I had plans. I had just written an article on Rangiroa's bizarre vineyards and winery, Vin de Tahiti, for Islands magazine and I wanted to see if I could get some pictures to go with the article. I had organized this with Vin de Tahiti and sure enough, Mihiroa, a young smiling Tahitian guide for Vin de Tahiti was there at the dock to greet us. We had time to get some pastries, drinks and snacks from a little store before getting in Mihiroa's car to drive a few kilometers to another dock and Vin de Tahiti's boat.

Next: Our visit to Vin de Tahiti.

Note: photos this blog by Celeste Brash

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Navigating the Tahitian Social Scene

From what I can tell so far, I think I'm the only expat non-French blogger in French Polynesia. I might be wrong about this but while all my Googling and digging has brought up some great blogs originating from Hawaii and a few tourist industry ones from Tahiti, no one else is writing about day to day life here and now. I guess this is normal considering that I personally know a total of (about) 20 English speaking ex-pats who live in this country and most of these are male surfers over 45 who married locals - nearly all these people also live very far from us.

So who do we hang out with?

Tahitians socialize mostly within their own very large families but if you do get close with them you are usually expected to behave as a family member. This means lending your car, bike, power tools, fishing equipment, boat and money to them and their other relatives you don't even know at various "emergencies" that spring up every week or so. Some stuff comes back and some stuff doesn't but no matter what, the tension created between people who have little concept of ownership and Westerners who have an overdeveloped sense of "hey I paid for that!" always ends in hard feelings. Tahitians expect that you ask stuff from them too and if you don't (and Westerners are often hesitant to ask people for favors) the relationship gets thrown off-balance and suddenly you are just the gullible patron.

This isn't to say we don't have Tahitian friends - we have lots of Tahitian friends but there are silent lines drawn from both sides after years of experience. These are people who stop by the house unannounced all the time but who would feel uncomfortable if we invited them over for dinner. They bring us bananas and sweet potatoes from their yards and we give them limes and pineapples from ours. Our kids play together and spend the nights at each other's houses, we'll drink a couple beers together from time to time and yeah, we do lend them the bike sometimes if they need it and they'll lend us their boat. Yet these relationships are kept casual and this makes it OK for either of us to say no. This also means they aren't available socially and we'd better have something else going on if we want a life.

So most of our core social group are like us, the mutts that don't really fit in. My best friend Amel is half Tahitian half Algerian and she's married to a Corsican guy who grew up on Tahiti; our friend Roy is a Kiwi, French and Tahitian mix and his wife is a Singaporean Indian. Ben is a Kiwi married to Valerie, a Chinese Tahitian mix and Terii who's half French half Tahitian is married to Annie who is pure Chinese descended from immigrants who arrived on Tahiti several generations ago. My husband is French and American and grew up partially on Tahiti so he's hardly considered and ex-pat. I, however give myself away as an outsider from the moment I open my mouth and speak my odd, Anglo, Tahitian French.

As Tahitian social lives go, I'm pretty happy with ours although I admit that what I miss the most about the States is my group of steadfast, fun, available and loving friends. Some weeks go by here where my social highlight is running into people at the grocery store. Nightlife is non-existent. Things pick up a lot during the Heiva (see my Heiva blogs) but other than that, dinner with friends over a bottle of wine is as wild as it gets.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Traveling French Polynesia by Supply Ship Part 2

Before the sun was up we could hear the crew starting to unload supplies. Jasmine and I got up at first light to find most of Tikehau out on the quay waiting for their fuel, boxes of food, furniture, bicycles and just about anything else you could think of, to get loaded down. The lagoon was a silent early morning blue, and Tikehau, the atoll I believe to be the most beautiful in the Tuamotus, was gleaming in calm, palm-fringed perfection.

I was very eager to get on land even though the boat was hardly moving at dock, so Jasmine and I got off the boat and wandered around the pretty, flower-filled village. I'd been to Tikehau before on assignment for Lonely Planet so knew my way around already. First stop was the bakery to get some fresh pastries, the store to get drinks and then we headed out to the dock again to watch our crew throw items so heavy that they really shouldn't be thrown, off the side of the boat and down to very brave, strong other workers of the boat crew on the dock below. Really big items like cars and pallets of cement are unloaded with the crane. I saw a few familiar faces, none of who remembered me (Tikehau is fairly touristy but most of the lodging options are very local style family run pensions where no one has heard of, or could care less about Lonely Planet), but everyone was friendly and acted happy to see me anyway. We waited hungrily for the only small restaurant in town to open (we'd been living on snack food for 36 hours at this point) and had a quick lunch of chow mein and a very tasty poisson cru at 11am before getting back on the boat just before its departure.

It was a little sad leaving land and the graceful curves of Tikehau but the sea was calm, we were well fed and knew that the next stop, Rangiroa wasn't too far away.

Note: photos this page by Celeste Brash

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Taro in Coconut Gratin Recipe

We had friends over for dinner on Friday and through a communication mix up I ended up with several extra kilos of taro. This is not a problem since I love taro but I do get tired of eating it just plain all the time so decided to experiment with this recipe.

Taro is a Polynesian staple. It's a root that tastes a little like a potato but is much denser and lacks that slightly acidic vitamin C flavor. Usually it's peeled, sliced and boiled in water with a pinch of sugar and salt added. When perfectly cooked it's firm on the inside and slightly sweet and gooey on the outside.

This recipe is inspired from a Chammoro recipe from the Marianas Islands that I found on I've tweaked it to work with what I usually have in my kitchen and changed around a few quantities. It smelled great when it was cooking and tasted even better. The butter makes it rich, the coconut milk makes it sweet, the onions and garlic give it a mouthwatering aroma and even better flavor and the taro on the bottom of the dish got deliciously chewy. A perfect Polynesian side dish especially for grilled fish. This makes four to six servings.

Taro in Coconut Gratin
3 lbs of taro peeled and sliced into ½ inch thick half moons
5 Tbsp butter
1 medium yellow onion chopped
2 shallots finely chopped (optional)
3 large cloves garlic finely chopped
4 Tbsp plain white flour
1 ½ cups (or 13.5 oz one can) coconut milk
1 ½ cups water
salt and pepper to taste
1 pinch cayenne pepper (optional)
½ cup breadcrumbs

Peel and cut the taro then set it aside to soak in a pot of cold water. Melt the butter on medium heat in a large frying pan then add the chopped onions and shallots till they are transparent. Add the garlic and cook for about a minute. Add the flour and stir till the onion mixture is coated and then for about one more minute. Add the coconut milk and water in four parts, stirring the mixture so that it thickens without getting lumpy. Cook till thickened, about seven-minutes, add salt, pepper and optional cayenne pepper to taste. Drain the water from the taro then pour on the sauce, stirring so that the taro is completely coated. Pour into a casserole, cover with aluminum foil and cook on 350 F for 40 minutes. Remove from the oven, take off the aluminum foil and sprinkle the top with bread crumbs. Return to the oven for another five minutes till the breadcrumbs are crisp and golden.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Traveling French Polynesia by Supply Ship Part 1

Even though I lived on Ahe Atoll for five years I had never taken a supply ship all the way out to the Tuamotus from Papeete, so two Christmases ago my then 11 year old daughter and I decided to take the adventurous three-day voyage on the good-ship Dory (which unfortunately no longer takes passengers - for a list of boats that do see my other post How To: Travel French Polynesia by Supply Ship) from Papeete to Ahe via Tikehau, Rangiroa and Manihi.

First, take note that I am the most seasick person in the world. I get sick in cars, on airplanes and even, embarrassingly enough, on the Moorea ferry. But I love the idea of boat travel and if it weren't for my terrible tummy I would have probably sailed away long ago. My daughter fortunately has her father's steel Viking gut so I knew, in the worst case, the tables would turn and my little girl could stroke my back while I dry heaved over the side.

Making matters worse, the supply ships stink. Diesel fumes linger even if the boat has been at dock for several days, black grease coats the railings and pools in corners and a all-encompassing layer of accumulated salt makes everything permanently sticky and damp. We bunked in an empty container with windows and doors cut into it, along with two other Tahitian guys on their way to work on a pearl farm. The ship's crew didn't really pay us much attention over the three days but they did let us into their quarters so we could use their toilets and once (and this was a truly decadent moment), the shower. Meals were up to us although we had no cooking facilities. We brought fruit, crackers, pate, peanut butter and granola bars, which ended up being plenty.

Well-armed with Bonine we set sail late afternoon and spent the first night sleeping, or sort of sleeping, while being hurdled back and forth within our beds by the rolling sea. It started to rain and a slight stream of water began to leak onto my head. I moved around so my head was at the other end of the bed which was much better even though I had cold wet feet all night. My daughter was luckily on the bottom bunk and stayed nice and dry. Maybe it was the fact that I had something else to worry about besides being sick, but the next morning, even though I was cold and sleepy, I actually felt OK. It was a full day at sea, not as rough as the night and I found if I just stayed in bed I didn't get too sick. My daughter read and played checkers with the other two guys in our room. Night came and we slept again, more peacefully this night till we felt the boat stop and the anchor drop into the Tikehau lagoon.

Note: photos this blog by Celeste Brash


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