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Rarotonga to Auckland – Day 7

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Today was our last day in Raro. Checkout was at 11AM, and our airport shuttle didn’t leave til 3:30, which left us with four and a half hours to kill. We decided to head into town for lunch, figuring we could easily eat up two hours this way. We went down to the bus stop and waited for almost an hour, before wondering if perhaps the buses were not running on Sunday. Around this time a taxi pulled over (on a side note this is the ONLY taxi I had seen on the entire island) to see if we might like a ride. We asked him about the bus situation, and he said that he thought they were running but informed us that everything in town was closed on Sundays. We thanked him, and began walking down the road to see if the nearby cafe was open instead. The cafe was closed, as was every other business we passed, so we decided to head to the resort where the wedding was held, as the restaurant there was sure to be open.

The restaurant was indeed open, and to make things even better it was happy hour, which meant two for one drinks. We enjoyed a nice lunch and an even nicer view of the ocean, colored a spectacular shade of blue by the cloudless afternoon sky, then walked along the beach back to our hotel. We spent the next few hours relaxing on the beach and reading while we waited for our shuttle.

After arriving at the airport and checking our bags, we walked over to the security checkpoint (everything before this point is outdoors). Before crossing through the security line, I noticed a small line forming to my right in front of a window labeled “export tax.” A bit confused, I walked over to the window to ask the lady what the export tax was for. Apparently export tax is a tax you pay simply for having visited a location. It’s as if to say “thank you for visiting, we hope you enjoyed our island, now shell out $55.” One might imagine that pumping money into the local economy for a week was enough, but one would be wrong. $55 is no small fee, and this honestly was a bit of a slap in the nuts on the way out the door. Once the tax was payed, a the sticker announcing the fact was appropriately affixed to my ticket, I made my way through security,

In order to board the plane, we had to walk out onto the runway. This is a familiar scenario when flying on a small prop-jet, but a bit of a strange case when boarding a gigantic 777. I parted ways with Christine, who somehow had found herself in the first class cabin, and found my seat in the back of the plane. Apparently I was seated in the crying baby section, having 8, yes count them EIGHT babies, all crying, within 3 rows of me. Then there was the guy across the aisle of me who apparently bathed in Hugo Boss cologne, I’m not overstating this, within five minutes the back of my throat and nostrils burned from the smell! The couple next to me were the saving grace. A lovely pair from somewhere in New Zealand that I couldn’t quite comprehend through her thick accent. I was prepared to deal with all of these minor annoyances, that is until the guy ahead of me very forcefully slammed his seat into full recline. Now as I’ve said before, I have a small love affair going with New Zealand Airlines; however, their seats seem to recline much farther back than any other airline I’ve ever encountered. This would seem to be a plus at first, that is unless you’re the guy behind the guy with his seat recline. So sitting there, surround by screaming children, choking on Hugo Boss, and now with a crotch-full of seatback, I decided it was time to move! I said G’Day to my mates in the adjacent seat and found a new seat in the very back of the plane. I’m happy to report the rest of the flight went quite smoothly. It’s also worth noting that we crossed the international date line, so while we left Rarotonga at 5:30PM on Sunday, we arrived a few hours later at 8PM on Monday. Kind of a weird feeling..

We landed safely in Auckland, made it through security, managed to find a rental car, and made it to our hotel incident free (minus one minor ding of a traffic cone), all while driving a mazda-3 with a right-handed steering wheel, WOOH! Tonight also marks my first internet connection since I left the states 7 days ago. So for now I shall sign off and prepare to catch up on emails…

Rarotonga – Day 6

Every Saturday there is a large farmers market in Averua (the capital city of the Cook Islands) on Rarotonga. Being a huge fan of farmers markets, this was an opportunity I was not about to pass up. We waited for the bus into town, and once again were scooped up at the last minute by a passerby headed in our direction. This time he was a very kind old man driving a small pickup truck. We hopped in the back, and had a beautiful ride into town. The farmers market was absolutely packed! It appeared as though the entire island had turned up (and that probably isn’t too far from the truth). We spent the next few hours poking around the various booths, and sampling various foods. I had a pork roll with apples and gravy which was pretty damn amazing. After the farmers market, we made our way back to the hotel where we spent the rest of the afternoon doing a whole lot of nothing..

Rarotonga – Day 5

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Today was another extremely lazy day. I awoke rather early, thankful to find that I was not hung-over from the wedding party last night (thank you B-12). The entire day was juggling act of napping, reading in the hammock, and strolling the beach. In the afternoon we wandered down to a neighboring resort where there was rumored to be a large octopus living under a rock not far offshore. Armed with tortillas, we made our way out into the water and began tossing little near places where we felt an octopus might like to hide. We never found the octopus, but we did see loads of fish, who greedily ate every bit of tortilla we presented. On the way back to our hotel, we were joined by one of the local island dogs (there are scores of them wandering about the island). There was nothing particularly special about this dog other than the fact that he loved to fish, and by fish I mean jump into the water, attempting to pounce on every fish he saw. He was never successful, but it was fun to watch nonetheless. I nicknamed him “Kingfisher.”

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Rarotonga – Day 4

Today started with another morning run/yoga/swim session. I woke around 7 and hit the beach straight away. I once again ran all the way down to the black rocks, and quickly plunged into the ocean; the cool water was a welcome relief after brisk the run down the beach. After completing the second half of my loop, I hopped back into the water and began poking around the reef to see what I might find. I saw crabs, rather creepily, crawling vertically along the slick rock-face to my immediate left. There were a number of fish, none of which I could name, but they were quite beautiful up close. I also saw sea-urchins, sea-cucumbers, and a number of large starfish in a shade of dark-blue that I have never seen before. After about 30 minutes of wading around, I came upon a rather open area in the reef. The water was clear and only a few feet deep. I plunged my head into the water and began to swim. At this moment (not being able to see a thing with my eyes shut), I realized that I have never been able to swim with my eyes open. I’ve had contact lenses since I was 12, which was an obvious preventative, but even before that, I had never been able to open my eyes while under water. It always puzzled me how people could. I mean, I realize that our eyes are essentially covered in salt water, so logically it shouldn’t be an issue, but the whole concept was just very foreign to me. I had lasik surgery over a year ago, so the contacts were no longer an issue. I was officially out of excuses. Without a moments hesitation I plunged into the water and forced my eyes open. At first there was a very minor sting in my eyes, and everything was very blurry, but I could see! I popped my head up for a breathe, then dove back down for round two. Things looked a bit as they would if I was not wearing my contacts (before my surgery), all fuzzy and out of focus, but I could make out shapes and colors, this is cool! I spent another 15 minutes or so working on my new found ability before hitting the sand and finishing my run I spent the rest of the morning and afternoon lounging in a hammock underneath a palm tree, reading Invisible Monsters by Chuck Palahniuk, and taking in the day.

Around 3:30 I through on a pair of khakis, a light-blue linen shirt, and my flip-flops, and started my walk down the beach to the neighboring resort where Jay and Amy’s wedding would soon be taking place. I arrived at their bungalow about 15 minutes later, where Jay quickly trained me in the art of the “Painkiller;” I had offered to play bartender so he could relax and  focus on more important things. After a few drinks, we all made our way to the beach where the wedding was about to begin. Christine handed me her wide-angle camera, and asked that I snap a few shots as Amy made her way down the aisle (I accidentally left the camera in Manual mode which resulted in a large number of blown out pictures, oops).

Just before Amy made her way down the aisle, the sun peaked out from behind the clouds, casting a single ray of sunlight down on the ceremony, and creating the most picturesque backdrop that you could possibly imagine. The ceremony was beautiful. Short, laid back, and beautiful. After the vows, we all made our way down to the sand, where Christine happily snapped pictures of the newlyweds, along with the entire wedding party. It was fun watching such a great group of friends, sharing in such a memorable event. Once the photo-session wrapped up, we all made our way over to the dining area, where we shared a great meal, heard some great toasts, watched fire dancers performing the sounds drum circle, then danced the night away under a star-filled sky.

I know I’m probably getting a bit repetitive here, but I really can’t say enough, what a great, welcoming, and kind group of people they were. At one point I found myself chatting with Jay’s mom Inga (or Ingred, I’m terribly embarrassed, but I was never able to catch her name with 100% certainty). Here was a woman with stories. She’s in her 60’s, still running marathons, and full of more energy and life than just about anyone I have ever met. So in the middle of our conversation, she says that I simply must come visit her and her husband in Santa Monica. How they have a home right on Ocean Avenue, and they would absolutely love it if I came to visit, and even if their not home, there will be maids there watching the house and that I should feel welcome to simply come and stay and enjoy their home. Now, keep in mind that I have only just met all of these folks 4 days ago, and have only had a few brief conversation with Inga, and even less with her husband John, yet here she is inviting me to come visit them at their home. It was very touching, and I honestly hope to have the opportunity to take her up on that offer someday.

Before wrapping up my post, I have to give a shout-out to Liz and Chad, one of the funniest, and most well-suited couples I have met in a long time. I wanted to give a plug to Liz (aka Gossip Whore) who is a celebrity gossip blogger for yahoo: omg.yahoo.com These two kept me laughing for most of the trip, and I hope that we are able to stay in touch!

Rarotonga – Day 3

Today I awoke to the first blue skies I had seen since departing San Diego 3 days ago, and I must say it is a much welcome change! The rain finally took its’ leisure and decided to let the sun shine through for a bit. It’s incredible how drastically the temperature can change with just a bit of sunlight. WIth nothing major on the itinerary for the day, Christine and I decided to head back over to the beach on the opposite side of the island for a second round of oceanside dining followed by a bit of kicking back and relaxing on the beach. For those of you who have been following my previous posts, you might be starting to see this whole “kicking back and relaxing” bit as somewhat of a trend; you’d be right. The thing about Rarotonga is there isn’t a whole lot to do. There’s the beautiful ocean, which brings some breathtaking views, beaches for lounging, snorkeling, diving and swimming. Beyond this there’s a few touristy activities you can partake in such as taking a guided 4WD tour through the inland of the island, taking a cruise around the harbor, or visiting a local spa. And that’s really about it. This leaves an enormous amount of time for strolling along the beach, sleeping, reading, eating, and just enjoying the day at the slowest pace you can muster. Forgive me, I’m getting a bit off topic. I almost forgot to mention Lynne.

Having no other immediate means of transportation, we decided to once again take the bus to the other side of the island for lunch. About 4 minutes before the bus was scheduled to arrive, and in seemingly routine fashion, a white van with “Hash House Harriers” painted across the side pulled up next to us, and a man with a rather respectable handlebar moustache popped his head out and asked if we’d like a ride. He made the same offer to the kiwi couple posted up along side of us. We greatfully accepted and jumped into the back of the van. Once inside, the man introduced himself as Lynne (not sure how exactly sure how to appropriately spell that when referring to a man, so please excuse me if I’m wrong). After a round of introductions from the 4 of us in the back, I asked Lynne about the Hash House Harriers sign on the side of his van. I have heard about the harriers before, and had seen an advertisement in the local newspaper for their weekly run the Monday after we arrived, so I was a bit interested in hearing more about their group. Apparently the H3 (I don’t think anyone actually calls it that, but I’m lazy so that’s what you’re getting from here on out), is an international group with local chapters in cities around the globe. It’s basically nothing more than a running club with a drinking problem (or crossed with a social club if you wanted to be a bit more polite). They meet for a weekly run (about 5-6km according to Lynne) which reaches its completion at a local pub, where they reward themselves with a few beers and some socializing. Lynne went on to explain that this week he, along with a number of other organizers, were holding a week-long triathlete event on Rarotonga (today being the final day/event). WIth the island having only one main road that is essentially a 30km loop, and some incredibly warm ocean waters, I couldn’t imagine a better place for such an event. Getting back to our ride, Lynne mentioned that he was actually heading the opposite direction, but still kindly drove us all the way to our destination without so much as a though. Mind you, Lynne is not a local islander, he is originally from New Zealand, but has been living on the island for 7 years now. When asked how long it takes to get to get to a point where you can truly let go and get into the snails pace of the island, he smiled and quickly responded “8 years, but we’ll see…” It’s easy to see why people fall in love with the islands. The sense of sincerity, generosity, and overall kindness is enthralling, and truly like no where else I’ve ever been. I can only hope that I will find more places in my life with people who share this sentiment, and place an equal amount of aspiration that I will personally carry some of it with me going forward.

Later in the evening we once again joined the wedding party for dinner at Jacks; a nice seafood and pizza restaurant located on the harbor in town. The food was amazing. Christine had the coconut crusted mai mai (see also Mahi Mahi), and I had the Traders Supreme pizza (sausage, pepperoni, black olives, onion, shrimp, cheese, heaven). Once again we ended up seated directly beside Jay and Amy (the bride and groom). They, along with their entire wedding party, have been so kind and welcoming, that I truly feel as though I’ve known them for years. I can’t say enough times how grateful I am to have had the opportunity to share the week with such an amazing group of people. I truly hope that I am able to stay in touch with all of them in the future.

Rarotonga – Day 2

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I woke up early this morning and decided to start the day with a jog. I threw on some board shorts, strapped on my five fingers, and hit the beach. The air was cool, and the beach was completely deserted. I ran about a mile until I reached a point where the sand was jettied by a pile of large black rocks pushing out into the ocean. The only way around was to swim, so I jumped into the unbelievably warm water and made my way through the coral and fish out around the rocks. Upon reaching the other side I continued my jog down the beach until I reached the beginning of the airport, at which point I turned around and made my way back to the rock pile. I spent another half hour or so poking around the coral, enjoying the sounds of the ocean, and watching the small fish swim by before heading back toward to the hotel.

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After finishing my run, I grabbed a quick shower and joined Christine for breakfast before heading off to meet the wedding party for a day of poking about the island. After everyone had gathered, all 16 of us piled in a rather fragile looking van, and headed out onto the road. Our first stop was the Rarotonga hospital, from which we were supposed to be able to find the most stunning views of the island. After driving for about 15 minutes we reached the hospital, perched high upon a hill. We poured out of the van, a scene which I can only imagine must have looked something like a clown car in a circus, and started wandering about the hospital grounds attempting to locate the viewpoint. Bear in mind, this whole scene is unfolding in a rather decent bout of rain, so everything, and everyone, is wet and slick. After a few moments, we happened upon a few hospital staff who were conversing under an awning, and trying to avoid the rain. They told us that the scenic lookout we were searching for was a short ways up a hill behind the hospital. This would have been no problem, except for the fact that it was raining, and the hill was now composed of extremely slippery mud. We ade our way up the hill with only minor complaining about Italian-made sandals (insert me snickering here), and without any major accidents. From the top we had breathtaking views of the island and ocean below, it was definitely worth the climb!

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After snapping a few photos, we all made our way (very carefully) down the hill, where we once again crammed into the van, and headed off into town. We stopped in town only briefly so people could change money and grab a few souvenirs, before continuing our journey to the other side of the island, and a very nice oceanside lunch. When everyone had eaten there fill, we enjoyed a leisurely walk along the beach, taking in the stunning views of the surrounding bay and islands, finally stopping at a small bar for a drink before retiring for the day.

The night brought nothing of terrible interest: Ham sandwiches and some light reading in the hotel room, then blissful sleep.

Rarotonga – Day 1

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I awoke at 4AM (a mere 3 hours after falling asleep) to the playful wails of a young blonde boy in row 34. He wasn’t crying, he was merely sharing his excitement for Thomas the Tank Engine, which was playing on the small screen installed in the seat-back in front of him. This wouldn’t have been a problem, I mean who doesn’t get excited over T3E, except it was 4AM, and he was expressing said excitement by cheerfully screaming some 3 year old garble at the top of his lungs. Then, after successfully managing to wake the entire rear section the aircraft, he quietly lied down and went to sleep.

I decided this might be a good time to stretch my legs and use the restroom, so I wearily made my way toward the back. I spent the next 10 minutes or so waiting for the bathroom, which appeared to be in use, to free up (and slightly dreading the aftermath of whoever might have been in there for such a long time). After another few moments had passed, a woman very casually strolled right past me, opened the door to the lavatory, and went inside. It had apparently been open the whole time, and between my drowsiness and the dimly lit cabin, I had simply failed to notice. To add the somewhat comedic situation, the new occupant proceeded to take another 10 minutes before exiting the facilities (luckily I was able to enter safely afterwards).

A few more hours past, in which time I slept about 30 minutes, and we started a somewhat bumpy descent into Rarotonga. It was pitch black outside, but I managed to see  a few shadowy outlines of trees as we bounced onto the runway. We stepped off the plane into a balmy 68 degrees, a much welcome change to the cold and rather dry climate of the aircraft. Upon entering the small terminal, we were greeted to some very beautiful island tunes, played by an old man with a guitar (mind you it was 6AM at this point). We cleared customs, and were promptly greeted by the staff of our resort, who adorned our necks with some very lovely smelling lei’s.

Our resort was only about a 10 minute drive from the airport, and we arrived just as the sun was starting to rise. Being on the West side of the island, we weren’t able to actually watch the sunrise, but, after checking in, we decided to take a stroll along the beach anyways. The beach was composed of rough, white coral sand, and was littered with pieces of fossilized coral and what I assumed to be volcanic rock. The water was crystal clear, and warmer than anything I have ever felt before. We walked for about ten minutes, and just as we were about to turn back, we saw Jay and Amy (the Bride and Groom of the wedding that Christine had come to shoot) standing next to a suite about 100 feet away. Apparently their resort is only about a half mile down the beach from ours. After saying hello, we made our way back to our hotel, did a bit of unpacking, and went to find breakfast.

Almost everyone on the island drives scooters. Being as we had no real means of transportation, we set about finding out how to obtain a scooter for the day so we could explore the island. As it turns out, you had to make arrangements with the rental company, who would pick you up at your resort, then take you into town to the Police station, where you would need to apply for a temporary permit to drive the scooter. This was all well and good, except for the fact that it was raining outside, and didn’t show any signs of letting up. After debating whether to chance the weather and go ahead with our scooter rental anyways, a sudden downpour made our decision for us and we decided to take the bus instead.

A few minutes before the bus was scheduled to arrive at the stop in front of our resort, a small truck pulled up alongside us; inside was an older man and his young son. He told us that he was heading into town and asked if we would like a ride. Seeing as it was raining, we graciously accepted his offer and climbed into the truck. The man introduced himself as Wooly (at least I believe that is what he said, it was a bit hard to decipher with his thick Maori accent), and his son as Danny. It’s worth mentioning that Danny was standing (not sitting, not strapped in) on the front seat of the truck with his arms around his fathers shoulders as we drove. As we drove toward town, Wooly took a few detours from the main road so that he could show us the local school, college, stadium, and a few other local buildings. After our brief tour, Wooly and Danny dropped us in Avarua. Although it is smaller than most (if not all) U.S. neighborhoods, Avarua is the capital city of the Cook Islands. It has a grocery store, a few banks, a number of small cafes, and about 6 dozen black pearl shops (black pearls seem to be the biggest sales item in the Cook Islands). After grabbing a bite at Cafe Salsa, we wandered around town a bit more then caught the bus back to our resort.

After catching a nap, we wandered down the beach to a neighboring resort to join the wedding party for a welcome reception at their bungalow. When we arrived the festivities were already in full swing. Everyone was sitting outside around the jacuzzi drinking a blended concoction that Jay (the groom) called a “Pain killer.” The next hours were spent sipping drinks and enjoying good conversation. It’s worth mentioning that most the members of this group were Ivy leaguers who, for the most part, were now working in the medical industry. At first I was a bit uneasy about “crashing” their party, and feared that I would be intruding on their celebration, not to mention being a bit concerned that I would have absolutely nothing of interest to share with a group of people from such a different background from my own. These fears quickly diminished as Jay and Amy, who I can safely describe as one of the most carefree and inviting couples I have ever met, took care to make me feel welcome (not to mention never letting my cup of Pain Killer get less than half emptry). Later in the evening we all attended a buffet style dinner at their resort which included a show displaying traditional song and dance of the Maori culture. I can’t really describe how thankful I am to these people for being so welcoming, and for letting me, a complete stranger, partake in what is one of the biggest moments of their lives.

Beyond the wedding party, the general feeling of the people of the Cook Islands has been quite overwhelming. Never have I come across such genuinely happy and kind-hearted people. Their welcoming smiles and positive attitude leave you feeling full of warmth and ease. This is a much welcome change after traveling in countries such as Brazil, where I felt as though I constantly needed to have my guard up. I’m currently feeling a bit more hopeful that there are more genuine and kind people in the world than there are cynics and swindlers. I hope this is a theme that continues throughout my trip.

The Final Departure

The final days before my departure can best be described as being a bit like watching my own funeral. My closest friends gathered to wish me farewell, sharing kind words and warm smiles, all carrying a very noticeable weight of sadness. While it warmed my heart to know that I have people in my life who care enough to be saddened by my departure, it also made leaving much harder than I could have anticipated. Nevertheless, I made it through. After choking through a few tearful goodbyes (and one last much needed drink at Craft and Commerce), Zac dropped me at Terminal 1 of the San Diego Airport. My adventure had officially begun.

I made my way through a surprisingly empty corridor, and placed my bag on the scale at the ticket counter. 25.5 pounds, not too bad. After reviewing my ticket, the ticket agent explained that I was in the wrong terminal, and that I would need to catch a shuttle bus to the commuter terminal to catch my flight to Los Angeles. Ignoring the fact that no where on any of my ticketing information was there any hint of the fact that I needed to go to the commuter terminal (it instead plainly listed “United” as the only indicator of where I should go), I followed her instructions and hopped on the next shuttle. Upon arriving at the commuter terminal I was again pleasantly surprised to find an empty terminal, and was promptly greeted by a few very friendly and almost overly-helpful gate agents. With my bag officially checked, I breezed through security and boarded my flight to L.A.

The flight to Los Angeles was short and bumpy. I have never flown on such a small aircraft before, and had to duck quite a bit to avoid hitting my head on the ceiling. Despite the tiny stature of the plane, we landed safely about 30 minutes after take off (this sure beat the hell out of battling L.A. traffic). After another brief shuttle ride, and second short security line I now find myself at Terminal 2 of the Los Angeles International Airport, listening to “In the Air Tonight” playing quietly over the speakers of a wonderfully average diner. Just over 2 hours til my 9 hour flight to Raratonga, and I’m trying desperately to fill the time to avoid allowing myself to think too much…

The Countdown

As my last days in San Diego quickly slip away, I am finding myself feeling surprisingly ambivalent to the changes that are about to, and have already occurred in my life. I suppose this lack of feeling could be due to the major, and rather unexpected, changes and opportunities which have presented themselves over the past few months. Instead of spending my final days tying up loose ends, and preparing myself to sell off my worldly possessions and uproot my life, I instead found myself traveling to Las Vegas, Brazil, and Yosemite, all the while growing closer to a certain someone who has managed to take an even deeper hold in my heart. So much for a leisurely exit from a city that, beyond my friends, held very few ties. It really is funny (see also annoying), how people have a way of entering your life at the most inopportune of moments. I have a feeling that once I plant my ass on that plane, with all tasks completed, I will finally start to analyze/realize/feel all the things that I have simply not had the time to ponder.  I digress..

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Getting Started With Robotlegs

I recently gave a presentation at the San Diego Flash Users Group (SDFUG) about getting started with the Robotlegs framework. Below are links to the source files for the example application (TweetBender) that I discussed, as well as some useful links for getting started with Robotlegs.