The Mouse That Roared

I know you are all probably following along at home, but in case you didn’t know, the 2007 Pacific Games have started in Apia, Samoa.

This has actually been a big deal everywhere I’ve been this summer. In Samoa, all the streets in Apia had banners for the games and every day in the paper there were stories about game preparations. I was eating dinner in Samoa one evening and there was a table of representatives from the Olympic committees from various pacific countries having dinner. Listening to their conversation, I got the impression most of the national organizations were really half-assed operations. That really should come as no surprise if you think about how small most of these places are.

The events at the games are for the most part normal, with a few exceptions:

  • Bodybuilding – Why this is a “sport” is beyond me. If you think about it however, it makes as much sense as diving, synchronized swimming, rhythmic gymnastics, and figure skating.
  • Netball – I really think Netball is dumb. See my previous posts from New Zealand. It’s basketball for girls, working under the assumption that girls can’t play basketball.
  • 7s Rugby – Honestly, the quality of competition in this event would be world class. Probably the only event they could say that about in these games other than weightlifting. I’d expect Samoa and Fiji to meet in the finals.
  • Va’a (outrigger canoing) – A real sport native to the region. I remember seeing in Samoa gigantic outrigger canoes that would seat over 20 people.
  • Archery – Not surpising as an event, but the Prime Minister of Samoa is competing.
  • Surfing – Everyone on the Tonga surfing team is from the same family.

If you have ever watched the Olympics opening ceremonies, you’ll always notice the tiny countries. They usually have an Olympic contingent of one or two people, and that one guy is holding the flag. The TV commentators will usually say something about how awesome it is that these little countries are here and basically treat them the same as you would competitors in the Special Olympics. (Awww, isn’t it great that the Cook Islands are here?? Give them a hand everyone! What great competitors!)

Well, the mouse has roared.

There is one particular sport which the countries of the Pacific are really good at. Weightlifting. There is a guy from Nauru (approx. population 12,000) who won a bronze medal at the world championships. Last week, a lifter from Micronesia, Manuel Minginfel, set the world record in the 56kg class.

I really think one or more of these island countries is going to bring home some hardware from Beijing in 2008.

Here is the current medal count so you can follow along at home.

Final Thoughts on Guam

As I previously mentioned, I had no preconceived notions about Guam. Having nothing to compare it with, I sort of used American Samoa as a benchmark.

American Samoa is a US territory, but it seems very subdued about it. You will see American flags flying here and there in American Samoa, but it is first and foremost Samoan. Much of this is due to the fact that Samoa is in the middle of nowhere and not next to anything. There has been little opportunity for them to be influenced by others.

Guam is nothing like American Samoa. Nothing. Guam is part of the USA and they hit you over the head with it the moment you walk off the plane. The airport has several “WE SUPPORT OUR TROOPS” banners. Outside the airport is a huge line of American and Guam flags. There is a greater diversity of fast food restaurants and chain stores in Guam than you will find in most US cities of similar size.

The roads are built like American roads. Guam has the only four lane roads I’ve seen in the Pacific, save for small stretches of New Zealand…and I think there might be more four lane roads on Guam. I actually experienced traffic. Not bumper-to-bumper, moving-at-a-snails-pace traffic, but significant traffic nonetheless.

I’ve heard of some cities (in particular Christchurch, NZ and Victoria, Canada) be called more British than the British. I think Guam might be more American than America.

This is due to the enormous military presence on the island. There is a naval base, an air force base and a marine camp on the island. Next year another 8,000 marines will be moving here from Okinawa. But for the military, I don’t know if Guam would be anything like what it is today.

Yet, there is another part of Guam that you also can’t miss the moment you leave the plane…..the Japanese.

When Americans leave the country for vacation, they will usually go to Mexico or the Caribbean. This is to be expected due to the proximity of those places to the US. Likewise, Guam is a big tourist spot for Japanese. 90% of the tourists to Guam are from Japan. If you go into the downtown area where the big resorts are, almost everything is in Japanese. It is a lot like Waikiki in Honolulu. Also like Waikiki, there are a ton of gun ranges right in town. At first, you might think thar the large number of gun ranges in Hawaii and Guam are due to the military bases, but you’d be wrong. The Japanese love shooting guns. They can’t do it in Japan, so its a popular thing to do when you come to the US. (Some of the signs for the gun ranges in Hawaii are funny. They have a gun in a full combat outfit with an M-16. If you read what you get to shoot, it’s mostly .22’s.)

I went to one of the popular attractions on the island: Talofofo Falls. Its just a few waterfalls on a small river, but there is a small amusement part that was built up around it. While most of the attractions on the island cater to Japanese tourists, this place seemed REALLY Japanese. As I was walking around I sort of figured out why.

If you recall your Gilligan’s Island history, there was an episode where they found a Japanese soldier who didn’t know the war was over. That was based on several true stories of soldiers found in the Pacific who had been in hiding for years after the war was over. The most famous case was of Shoichi Yokoi who was found living in the bush in Guam in 1972….28 years after the end of WWII. The real attraction of the park wasn’t the waterfall at all. It happened to be the location of the cave that Yokoi lived in. Yokoi is a Japanese hero. There is a small Buddhist shrine built on the location. The name of the gift shop in the park is “Yokoi’s Store”. Hardly any mention of this was in the English language signs or brochures.

One other way that Guam is different from American Samoa is the people. The natives of Guam are the Chamorros. They only account for about 40% of the population of the island. They are heavily Catholic and most of them have Spanish last names.

The US picked up Guam as a spoil from the Spanish-American War, along with the Philippines. It became a Spanish colony almost 500 years ago and was used as a station for ships traveling to and from the Philippines. Unlike the Philippines, Guam never opted for independence.

Unlike the Samoans, the Chamorros have been mixing with different people who have come to the island for hundreds of years: Spanish, Americans, Filipinos, Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans. I haven’t heard much Chamorroan spoken in Guam, even in conversations between locals. In fact, most of the people here have American accents.

Geologically, Guam is the southernmost island in the Marinas Island chain. Ethnically, they are the same as the Chamorros in the Northern Marinas Islands, but historically and politically, they have been separate for a long time.

I think if Guam were closer, there would be a lot more tourists from the US which visited. It is an interesting slice of America plunked down in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

The Road to Saipan

I’m off to Saipan in the Commonwealth of the Northern Marinas Islands in a few hours.

I have my flights booked through to October 3, so the month of September is locked up. Here is my schedule:

  • August 31: Saipan, CNMI
  • Sept. 3: Chuuk, Federated States of Micronesia (FSM)
  • Sept. 5: Pohnpei, FSM
  • Sept. 7: Kosrae, FSM
  • Sept. 10: Majuro, Marshall Islands
  • Sept. 13: Koror, Palau
  • Sept. 19: Manila, Philippines
  • Oct. 3: Taipei, Taiwan

I’ve decided to visit the Philippines and Taiwan before going to Japan. It just worked out better with the flights. I also wasn’t able to fit a trip to Yap in because of flight schedules.

I have the second part of my Rennell trip ready to get posted, I’m just formatting the photos. My brief adventure on Guam will also be up soon.

I have also caught up on my photos and have uploaded everything to Flickr.

As the Pacific part of my adventure is nearing an end, I’m sure many of you will be happy to read about places you’ve actually heard of, rather than just tiny little islands in the middle of nowhere :)

Guam First Impressions

Guam isn’t something you think about much, so I had no idea what to expect. I was mentally using American Samoa as my measuring stick for Guam. Both are American territories in the Pacific, so I figure that would be as good a benchmark as any.

(Actually, I do have one thing when I think of Guam. For years, I’d attened the national high school debate tournament and every year a team from Guam would show up. Every year they were dead last. You were lucky if you got to debate Guam and were nervous if you had a Guam judge)

American Samoa was much more Samoan than American. Guam, at first glance, seems very American.

I’m in the same time zone as Sydney, so this is the farthest point west I’ve been so far on my trip. I’m sure I’ll have more to say tomorrow.

What I Did On My Vacation From Vacation

A quick summary of where the last several weeks have gone:

– I got a 160gb Firewire hard drive for my laptop. This pretty much solved the “where do I put my photos” problem with a vengeance. Between this, my old ipod and my laptop, I have more than enough room for anything digital. I’m also sending DVDs with photos burned onto them back to the US.

– I got a 12-24mm lens for my camera. This should be much better for taking landscape and wide angle photos. I’ve been using only one lens up until now, a 18-200mm lens. I found the limits of what I can do with it on Rennell. It can zoom, but its not really a zoom lens. I would have failed on my national geographic assignment. I’m already thinking ahead for what I’ll do in Africa. I’ve read about places that rent out camera equipment. Renting a huge zoom lens is probably my best bet. I’m certainly not going to buy one and lug it around the world.

– I also purchased a second laptop battery. This should make it easier to do stuff away from the grid. It was an issue on Rennell.

– Amy sent me two pair of ExOfficio boxer briefs (the official underwear of Everything Everywhere). Seriously, these are the best purchases I have made for this trip.

– I got my epic flying mount and got my hunter alt to level 70.

– Read about seven novels and “Punctuated Equilibrium” by Steven Jay Gould.

Leaving Hawaii

I’m finally leaving Hawaii today. I’m off to Guam for my SEVENTH crossing of the International Date Line of my trip. This is also be the longest flight of my trip by a wide margin. It might just be the longest flight I take during the entire trip.

I am very much ready to leave Hawaii. Waikiki has grown sort of stale and I’m ready for something new. I have absolutely no preconceived notions of what Guam will be like, so it should be interesting. I’ll be flying in and out of Guam several times as I visit the neighboring countries.

My schedule for the next few weeks includes Saipan (Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands), Majuro (Republic of the Marshall Islands), Kosare (Federated States of Micronesia), Phonpei (FSM), Chuuk (FSM), Yap (FSM) and Palau.

5 Month Scorecard

Yesterday was my birthday.

On this black day in history, the following happened:

  • Rome was sacked. (410 AD)
  • Mount Vesuvius erupted burying the city of Pompeii (79 AD)
  • The White House was burned (1814)
  • Windows 95 was released
  • The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre occurred (1572)
  • The Bank Panic of 1857
  • Pete Rose was banned from baseball (1989)
  • Pluto lost its status as a planet (2006)

My birth is really just the cherry on top…..

I have a few updates on things I’ve written about before:

– I’ve been contacted by officials in Kiribati about my incident at the airport. I think they are genuinely apologetic about what happened. Given what happened on the ground, it was clearly one guy who was responsible for the whole affair. My incident just might spur them to make some changes so something like that doesn’t happen again. I think Kiribati needs all the tourism they can get.

I’d strongly suggest that Kiribati rethink their entire visa system. Given the realities of being a tiny country in the middle of the ocean, they should create an open visa policy. In other words, unless you are from a small list of countries they are concerned about, anyone can enter on a 14-30 day tourist visa. If you want to stay longer, work, or immigrate, you need special authorization.

Island nations have an advantage over larger nations in this respect. If someone enters a large country, the concern is that once they pass through immigration they can disappear into the country and never been heard from again. On an island, especially an atoll like Tarawa, disappearing is impossible. There is nowhere to go and outsiders will stick out like a sore thumb.

Also, the smaller the nation you are, the more difficult it will be to process visa applications. If they want the revenue stream that visas offer, just switch to an exit tax which is what most nations in the Pacific have. Or, they could do what PNG does and have a process for getting a tourist visa at the airport. If they just rethink what they need from their visa system, they can make changes that will encourage travel and probably reduce administrative costs for them.

– I think the Solomon Islands moon rock has gotten to the attention of people at NASA. I don’t know what will be done, but at least it has been brought to the attention of someone who can bring it to the attention of someone else. I believe the best spot for it would be somewhere in Parliament building which was paid for by the United States in the early 1990s.

– I fly to Guam tomorrow and I hope to do a lot of SCUBA diving the next few weeks in Palau, Micronesia and the Marshalls. I haven’t been diving since Fiji when I got impetigo. I’m hoping to dive in Chuuk lagoon and the jellyfish lake in Palau at a minimum. I believe Palau will be one of the highlights of my trip. (One of my impetigo sores was at the base of my fingernail on the middle finger of my right hand. It cased the fingernail to sort of die, so over the last month or so I’ve had a weird nail growing under the former nail. I had a weird fingernail on top of a fingernail. Anyway….its finally all normal and doesn’t look like I have a mutant finger nail anymore.)


Here is a list of my top experiences and disappointments of the first five months of my trip, in no particular order:


  • Easter Island
  • Milford Sound
  • Queenstown, NZ
  • Blowholes of Savai’i, Samoa
  • Green Sand Beach, Hawaii
  • Rennell Island
  • Diving in Fiji
  • Noumea
  • People I met in the Yasawas


  • Getting denied entry to Kiribati
  • Not going to Bora Bora
  • Cost of everything in Tahiti
  • Skipping Tuvalu
  • Not spending another week in New Zealand
  • Only getting one hour in Nauru
  • Getting rained out on my flight to Tanna Island

Bungle in the Jungle: Day 1

My trip to Rennell is certainly the biggest feather in my travel hat to date. Why? The number of non-Soloman Islanders who visit each year is around 10. You’ll probably understand why when you’re done reading this. The thing which made this my biggest adventure isn’t any one thing so much as the sum total of everything which happened.


Rennell Island is part of the province of Rennell and Bellona which is the smallest province in the Solomon Islands (by a wide margin). It is also ethnically Polynesian, whereas the rest of the Solomons is Melanesian. Geographically, it is also isolated from the rest of the Solomons, sitting to the south of the main archipelago. If you look at the satellite photo of Rennell above, you can see that the most distinctive feature of the island is Lake Tegano. Tegano is a slightly brackish lake which is home to an enormous variety of birds, some of which are only found on Rennell. The Eastern part of the island has also been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the only one in the South Pacific other than Easter Island. The population of Rennell is about 2,000 people. Geologically, the island is an uplifted coral atoll. As such, the entire island is surrounded by cliffs ranging from 300 to 1000 feet high and all the land surface is a rocky limestone with very thin soil.

The unique nature of the island, in all respects, is why I wanted to visit.

Friday, July 27

I had purchased my ticket to Rennell several days before in Honiara. I went into the Solomon Airlines office and had no problem getting the ticket. Getting lodging was more difficult. The guidebooks I’ve read didn’t have much information about Rennell, but the few lodges they had listed had no phone numbers or email addresses. The Solomon Islands tourism office had to make the reservation for you via radio.

The one thing I read everywhere I got any information about Rennell was that the car trip from the airstrip to the lake was expensive. I had read it cost anywhere from SBD$500-900 each way. (US$70-120). The travel office quoted me a price of SBD$500. That’s pretty pricey, but not crazy given how hard it is to get fuel on the island and the difficulty of driving (more on that later). Moreover, they only took cash on the island, so you had to have all the cash you needed on you before you left for the island. Room and board was about SBD$200 per day (US$27). I figured I needed about SBD$2000 for the weekend. That works out to US$66 per day for everything, which isn’t too bad.

The flight was scheduled to leave at 7am and I had about SBD$1,000 on me. I took out SBD$2,000 the previous day and spent about $1,000 on some wood carvings and shipping it back to the US. I figured I’d just get out another SBD$1,000 at the airport ATM.

I get up stupid early and get to the airport at 5am and I am the only human being there. No airport workers. Pitch dark. The domestic terminal wasn’t the same as the international terminal. The domestic terminal was a dump. As I sat there with my bags in the dark, I stared at the door wondering how clumps of mud managed to get that high…and why someone hadn’t cleaned it up. Like the rest of Honiara, there was garbage everywhere on the ground.

About that time I realized that there wasn’t an ATM at the domestic terminal and that the international terminal wasn’t open. I was screwed. I had enough cash for transportation or food/lodging, but not both.

Eventually other people started showing up. A few taxis were there so I grabbed one to drive me to the nearest ATM in town. I figured I’d have enough time to run there and back and still have 15 min to spare before boarding.

I get a cab, get to the ATM and…….TRANSACTION DENIED!! I couldn’t take out any money. I started freaking out. The trip to Rennell aside, not having access to your money is never a good thing while traveling.

I go back to the airport (out another SBD$40 for the cab) and meet the guy from the tourism office who booked my lodging on Rennell. He told me that the flight was delayed until 8:30am. There was no reason for the delay, that is just how Solomon Airlines works. Having gotten another 90 minutes, I took another cab into town to see if I could work something out.

I tried another ATM. TRANSACTION DENIED!! I went to my hotel to see if they will do a cash advance off a credit card….they wouldn’t. (Most descent hotels will do this for a few hundred at least) As a last resort I went to the Western Union office to get a cash advance. The Western Union office didn’t open until 8:00, so I had to just sit and wait for an hour.

…so I waited….

8:00am arrives….no one shows up. 8:05…..nothing. 8:10….zip. Its a 15 min drive back to the airport from the Western Union office. The tourism official said he was going to check me in (they’re pretty informal about that stuff here). At 8:15 no one had shown up to open the office so I figured I was just shit out of luck and went back to the airport, less SBD$100 for the 90 min cab ride.

I get to the airport and tell the tourism guy that I wont be able to go because I just can’t access enough cash right now. He just shrugged and said “here is the son of the man who owns the lodge”. He spoke to him in pidgin and said “it’s no problem. Just pay whatever you need to when you get back”.

Well, that was easy. The very same lax Solomon Island attitude that didn’t open the Western Union office saved me by delaying the flight and working out payment details.

It was 8:30am, I had been up four and a half hours, almost had a heart attack and I hadn’t boarded the plane yet.

The Flight

I didn’t expect much more than a puddle jumper and that was what I got. The plane had to be at least 40 years old. It was a De Havellin Twin Otter Series 300. The only comfort to flying on a really old airplane is the knowledge that it has survived that long without crashing.

Most of the people at the airport weren’t there to get on the plane, there were there to drop off packages. Most of the cargo was small boxes and plastic bags full of bread, cooking oil, cigarettes, betel nuts, etc. Four of the seats in the plane were taken up by a mattress.

There were no boarding passes. When the flight was ready to board, a Solomon Airlines employee sitting on the counter (not on a chair mind you) just yelled “you can get on the plane now!” There was no security check.

The flight itself was fine. The landing strip on Rennell was just a strip of grass cut out of the forest.

The entire village was lined up at the landing strip when we arrived.

The plane arrived twice a week and was the primary link to the outside world. There is also a boat which brings supplies once a month, but the schedule is very irregular. ( was told that the boat had been past due for several weeks due to weather and supplies of everything were running low.) Each flight to Rennell is loaded down mostly with packages of stuff which are sent from relatives working in Honiara.

The village with the landing strip (Tigoa) was on the west end of the island and the lake is on the east end of the island. It is about 20 miles from the landing strip to the lake. Tigoa is the “capitol” of Rennell and Bellona. They had a police building, which was by far the nicest structure on the island. It had 24 hour electricity and the police had a newish pickup truck. It was also staffed by members of the RAMSI force which was deployed on the Solomons after the civil unrest there several years ago. (Why they put RAMSI officials on Rennell is beyond me. RAMSI was deployed to quell violence on the island of Guadalcanal between natives of Guadalcanal and Malaitans, both of which are Melanesian and are far removed from anything on Rennell). There were a few other government buildings in the village which had some form of at least part-time electricity.

The Drive

The 20 mile drive took 9 hours. During that time, we suffered 8 flat tires.

There was no spare tire.

There are several reasons we had so many flat tires. The biggest one was the fact that we were carrying 10 people and a full load in the back of the pickup. We had 5 people in the cab and 5 sitting on the edge of the bed, with all the packages and supplies sitting in the middle of the bed.

The road (the only one on the island) at first glance looks like a gravel road, but it wasn’t. It was bare rock and the rock was a very sharp limestone.

The tires and the inner tubes were all in poor condition and had been punctured many times previously.

I’ll be honest, I was astounded that they were able to fix the tire so many times. They eventually ended up crimping the leak and wrapping rubber around it. The inner tube ended up looking like something far from a circle. They would cannibalize other inner tubes and put layers inside the tire to protect the inner tube they were using. It was all pretty ingenious actually. They had gotten tire repair down to an art with nothing more than some scraps of rubber, some rubber cement and a bicycle pump. Necessity really is the mother of invention. The people of Rennell rely on this road and four vehicles on the island. They have no resources to fall back on, so they make due with what they have.

The trip is normally three to four hours, so we spent a lot of time just sitting around. Most of the guys that were along for the ride smoked like fiends with cigarettes which came aboard from the plane, and chewed betel nut (that subject is another post entirely). It so happened that the man who was the head of the East Rennell World Heritage board was riding along so I was able to talk with him, as I did on the way back to Honiara.

By the time we arrived at the lake the sun had set. I took my stuff out of the pickup and we got in a boat with an outboard motor to go across the lake to the lodge I was staying at. I couldn’t see much given the low levels of light, but the lake was very serene. We were in the lagoon part of the lake which was dotted with small islands. (some barely enough to hold a single palm tree). We arrived at the Kia Koe Lodge and I was given my room and served dinner which had been waiting for me for several hours.

The meal was actually very good. Everything was local: coconut crab, tilapia from the lake, taro and coconut milk straight from the coconut. I had dinner by kerosene lantern as there was no electricity anywhere in the facility.

I went to bed that night knowing that I was probably more isolated on Rennell than I have ever been. Even though Easter Island was more geographically isolated, they had large jets land several times a week and paved roads throughout the island. If something were to happen on Rennell, there was no way to help.

Looking at the lake at night, I saw something strange. Even though there were several villages on the lake, there were absolutely no lights.

The Seduction Which Is Hawaii

I’m leaving Hawaii soon, so I figure I better get back into the habit of writing.

Many people have a very romantic view of island life. They can think of nothing better than sitting on a beach with palm trees. That is their version of paradise. You go to the mall and in some kiosk is a guy selling cheesy back lit signs showing that very scene. You can find it on calendars, t-shirts, desktop wallpaper, etc. You take some personality poll online and one of the questions is: would you rather spend your time at the beach or on a mountain?

Having been to much of the Pacific now, I state categorically that there is a downside to island life that most people don’t consider in their fantasy. Every Pacific country (I can think of no exceptions) have remittances as one of, if not the largest, part of their Gross Domestic Product. That is a fancy way of saying that the chief export of most Pacific countries is people. (I say that thinking of Charelton Heston screaming “It’s PEOPLE. The chief component of their GDP is PEOPLE!!”)

Islands are expensive. You have to have everything shipped in, usually at great expense. They are isolated. You are months if not years behind the rest of the world in cultural and economic matters. They are poor. There are few opportunities and natural resources available on most islands.

Yet everywhere I went, I’d meet a very small number of white westerners who have made an island their home. More often than not they ran a hotel or a restaurant. (a surprising number of businesses are owned by foreigners). Sometimes they married a local. They are the ones who actually went out and lived out their dreams of living on an island.

Hawaii is a totally different animal from the rest of the Pacific.

Hawaii, with perhaps the exception of Noumea, is the only place in the Pacific that doesn’t have the downside that other islands have. (I suppose I’m leaving New Zealand out of this discussion. I don’t really consider it a tropical island) In Hawaii, you can have the best of both worlds.

You can walk around Waikiki and see a mix of Japanese tourist, sailors, families on vacation, and young couples on their honeymoons. You also see a small group of people who look like they showed up a few years ago and just never left. I got to meet several of them when I was in Maui. They tended to be younger people who were all looking for whatever job they could find and spending their time not at work at the beach. They are all sort of freaks with tans that put them in a league with George Hamilton.

As you can tell my by silence the last few weeks, I find Hawaii to be a very seductive place. The weather here is perfect. By far the best I’ve seen in the Pacific. You have all the benefits of living on the mainland with none of the downside of living on an island. I’ve been eating every other day at a seafood buffet that has all you can eat sashimi. How can you not love that?

I could totally see myself living here someday. Before that occurs however, I have the rest of the world to see…