Cook Islands 1986: My Gauguin Moment in a Poor Man’s Tahiti

I found an interesting ticket on Air New Zealand. The routing was  LAX, Papeete, Tahiti, Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, Fiji and finally Auckland, New Zealand. All of that for a few hundred dollars. I couldn’t resist. The rules allowed you to stay as long as you liked at each destination. The only caveat was that the flights were a only a couple of times a week. So once you got there you may have to wait a while for the next flight even if you were tired of the place. In those days, I traveled with one carry-on bag that went under the seat. The exact dimensions were 9″ x 22″ x 14″. I had it down to a science. I packed exactly the right number of long pants, short pants, shirts and underwear. Including the toiletries, the whole thing did not exceed 7 kg in weight. No waiting for baggage. I learned my lesson in El Salvador when my friend’s checked bag was stolen. But that’s another story.

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Photo taken at the Gauguin Museum, 1976

Tahiti was wonderful. To begin with, I love French culture. Combine that with the gorgeous Polynesian culture and you have an unbeatable combination. The only problem was that I was still a budget traveler in those days. Tahiti would blow a giant hole in your budget if you stayed there long enough. The reason is that Tahiti is a semi autonomous territory of France. Tahitians are French citizens. In those days, their currency was tied to the French Franc. Unfortunately, nearly everything that wasn’t made on the island was imported from France which was halfway around the world. The result was some eye-popping prices. I remember paying $15 for sandwich at a small snack bar. That was 30 years ago. While I loved the French cuisine and the wine in the restaurants, I winced each time they brought me the check. Soon I would be moving on to a different part of Polynesia, the Cook Islands, which my guidebooks told me was much cheaper. Perhaps Marlon Brando could afford a long stay in Tahiti but a college teacher like me could not.

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Papeete Marina

Before leaving Tahiti, however, there were two things I wanted to do. First, I had to see the Gauguin Museum which was a short ride down the coast. Second, I wanted to see another island besides the main island of Tahiti. I chose Moorea which was the most accessible. I would rather have gone to Bora-Bora but time and money did not permit it. The trip to Moorea was delightful and I met a nice Frenchwoman who owned the small resort where I stayed a couple of nights.

The Paul Gauguin Museum chronicled Gauguin’s 10 years he spent on Tahiti and the nearby Marquesas Islands. He died on the Marquesas Islands in 1902, in fact. His paintings weren’t a success until after he died. The museum contains many of his documents, photos, sketches and block prints. I felt a bit of a disappointment to find there are very few original paintings. Since his oil paintings now sell for millions of dollars, I suppose it would be very expensive to keep any of them there. I understand now the museum has gone down quite a bit and is currently closed. I enjoyed my visit along with the ride down the spectacular coastline.

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Ferry to Moorea

After Tahiti and Moorea, it was time to leave the expensive French-speaking part of Polynesia and move 700 miles to the southwest to the Cook Islands, an English speaking region. Named for Capt. James Cook who first visited in 1773, the Cook Islands is made up of 15 small atolls and islands scattered over 770,000 mi.². My Air New Zealand flight sat down on the main island of Rarotonga. The capital city, Avarua is on the north end of the island.

I booked a small beach bungalow near the airport. Although the airport was only a few miles from Avarua, the airport shuttle took me the entire circumference of the island all the way back around to my bungalow. Although it took nearly an hour, it was daytime so I got a great view of the whole island.

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Hugh Baker’s bungalow

I booked my bungalow with Hugh Baker and his mother, Dolly. I was a bit surprised when I saw that the bungalow appeared to be just a tin shack. Inside, however, it was well fitted out and was a short walk to the beach. Hugh even supplied me with a bicycle to ride the 2 miles into town. As I examined the bicycle, one thing stood out. It was nearly 100% made of plastic. It was engineered to survive the intense humidity, I suppose. I spent the next few days swimming and riding my bicycle and getting to know Rarotonga. The people were extremely friendly and welcoming. Some say the place is like Hawaii 80 years ago.

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My Plastic Bicycle

Unlike Hawaii, Cook Islands is a self-governing island state in free association with New Zealand. The Kiwis provide for their defense and help finance their debt. Many of the professionals working on the island are from New Zealand. My landlord, Hugh Baker, worked at the airport and rented out bungalows for extra money. With only 14,000 native Cook Islanders left living in the islands, there are now more Cook Islanders living abroad than at home. In recent years, the islands have become a well-known tax haven and offshore banking center. While I was there, everything was unbelievably cheap. The kiwi dollar was about $.55 to the US dollar. A large bottle of delicious Steinlager beer only cost one kiwi dollar.

 

On one of my afternoon bike rides, I discovered the Banana Court Bar on the main highway. Although quiet in the daytime, the bartender told me to come back on a weeknight, Wednesday was ladies night and that would be best. They had a local band and the place filled up. I made a mental note to do that before I left the island. But first, I wanted to do as I had done in Tahiti and see an additional island. I chose Aitutaki because it was an atoll. Raratonga was formed by a volcano. An atoll is formed by coral and is usually ring-shaped with a large lagoon in the center.

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Cook Islands Air Flight

This was the case with Aitutaki. Cook Island Air had regular flights there. The view from the was spectacular. I enjoyed a relaxing two or three days. I rented a motorbike and explored the atoll. The place was very quiet and idyllic. The only other tourists on my part of the island were a couple of Australian families. After two days of it, I was raring to get back to Rarotonga.

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Aitutaki Atoll View

When I arrived back at my beach shack I realized two things. First, I only had two more nights on the island and soon I would have to move on to Fiji. My Air New Zealand ticket was booked and would be difficult to change. Second, I remembered it was Wednesday. This was the night for the Banana Court Bar. I needed to plan ahead. I didn’t want to be riding the plastic bicycle in the center at night. So when evening rolled around, I walked nearly a mile to the general store and called a taxi to take me into town.

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When I arrived at the Banana Court Bar, I discovered the guys were right. The place was full. The music seemed to be a mix of American music and some local tunes. As I enjoyed my Steinlager and looked across the crowd, I noticed many of the women had flowers in their hair and wore tropical style dresses. Some of them looked as if they had been plucked from a Gauguin painting. I kept exchanging eye contact with one of the pretty young women. I can’t remember if I ask her to dance or she asked me. Probably she asked me because I tend to be shy and not very aggressive in bars.

No matter. We enjoyed three or four Western-style dances and I learned that her name was Justine. She had a charming slight New Zealand accent. I thought to myself, what a pretty name and what a lovely, exotic young lady. At that point the music changed and she asked me if I wanted to dance a local dance called the Ura. Why not? She had me stand in a semi-crouching position with my feet firmly planted on the floor while keeping my upper body steady. I was then to move my knees to the rhythm of the music. Facing me with her feet between mine, She stood above me, raised her arms and swayed and undulated to the music. OMG, what an incredibly sensual experience! This was not the dancing the Mormons had taught me in Utah many years ago. I was in heaven. I was smitten.

After a few more dances, her girlfriend showed up and said her group was leaving. When Justine hesitated a bit, the friend took her hand and began pulling her toward the door where her other friends were waiting.  Justine paused, smiled and looked back at me and said,” I work at the library”. Yes! I got the distinct impression she wanted to see me again. Why else did she tell me that? Was I being presumptuous? Cross cultural nonverbal communication is sometimes hard to read. Maybe she was just being kind to the forty-something American tourist. Well, we’ll find out. Tomorrow I’ll ride my bike into town and visit the library and say hello and see what develops. That night, as I fell asleep, I remembered dancing Ura and started having fantasies about dropping out of the American rat race and living the Gauguin lifestyle on the beaches of the Cook Islands.

Morning came and the rain started. It wasn’t just light tropical rain like we experienced a few days earlier. This was rain of biblical proportions. In my beach shack, I didn’t have a TV or radio. Probably this was a typhoon. There was no way I could ride that plastic bicycle into town. I doubt if I could even walk it when it was raining 70 miles an hour sideways. I had no other choice but to wait. And wait I did…the entire day. That night the deluge subsided a bit. The next morning I was able to walk to the general store. Annoyed, frustrated and wet, I booked my airport taxi for the confirmed flight to Fiji which was later that day. The tropical rains had washed away my Gauguin fantasy. I told myself I would return there soon. I never did. Life happened.

 

Cambodia: The Good, the Bad and the Horrific

My experience in Cambodia was the most difficult to write about. The trauma and the wounds of one of the major genocides of our time have not fully healed. Following the Vietnam War, some 2 million people, 25% of the population, were killed by an agrarian socialist government. Between 1992 and 2012, I visited Cambodia several times and watched the changes as they struggled to recover from this horrific past. Although conditions are getting much better, one can still see pain in the eyes of the older people. Some say the sadness has been passed down to the next generation.

Having said that, in recent times many travelers have had outstanding travel experiences visiting the temples and restaurants of Phnom Penh, the fantastic ruins of Angkor Wat, and the uncrowded beaches of Sihanoukville on the south coast.

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My first visit in June 1992 was the most memorable and haunting. The wounds inflicted by the Khmer Rouge were still fresh. Although the Vietnamese Army had deposed the murderous Khmer Rouge several years earlier, the United Nations had just taken control of Cambodia that January. The United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) consisting of 22,000 soldiers from 45 countries became the police, the army and the government. If you know how the UN budget works, you know that the USA was paying the lion’s share of the cost of them being there.

The distinctive blue berets were everywhere. White Toyota land cruisers with the initials UN painted on the side filled the unpaved avenues. In the afternoons and evenings, UN vehicles were double parked in front of the several French restaurants. Pakistani soldiers could be seen shopping in the markets all over town. At night, it was the Wild West. One writer described the scene as “guns, girls and ganja”.  I didn’t see much of the drugs, but I was told you could buy a big bag of weed in the market for a couple dollars. Also, you could get a pizza made with “magic mushrooms” at Happy Herbs pizza restaurant along the riverfront. A thousand bars, massage parlors and brothels sprang up catering to the military.  Bar fights and broken jaws were common.

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How did I end up amid all this tumult and anarchy? I was invited there by a Cambodian American fellow by the name of Vanthorn Thach. He was a survivor of the Khmer Rouge killing fields. Three out of four of the workers in his prison camp died, mostly of starvation. Somehow, Vanthorn was able survive and get to the United States and was now living in San Diego. He heard that I was helping some local Vietnamese start an import export business. He came to my office at the College. He said he had a number of contacts in Cambodia and wanted me to show them how to get started in international trade. I agreed, and a few months later he was waiting for me when I arrived at the airport in Phnom Penh. The adventure began.

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Work came first. Once I was settled in to my simple but comfortable room, I met Mr. Heng, Vanthorn’s contact in Phnom Penh. Mr. Heng and his family ran a small office supply business on one of the main streets in the center. After we talked about possible products to trade and potential trading partners, they offered to show me the main sites of Phnom Penh including the Central Market, Wat Phnom and, at my request, the infamous Toul Sleng and Choeun Ek.

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Mr. Heng and Family

 

The iconic art deco Central Market was something left over from the French occupation. Indeed, you could still see many remnants of French colonization around town including a number of excellent French restaurants.  When I climbed a hill to see Wat Phnom at the top, I received a shock. About halfway up there was a woman holding a baby. I smiled down at her and she smiled back and opened the shawl so I could see the baby.  I was stunned to see how emaciated the child was. It really hit me what these people had been through! And it wasn’t over. I wasn’t sure what I should do. I think I handed her a wad of local money and continued my hike half stunned. That evening I had dinner with Mr. Heng and Vanthorn by the riverside. They acknowledged there was still a lot of poverty in Cambodia especially when you got out of the capital. The Khmer Rouge had caused it, but neither the Vietnamese occupiers nor the United Nations had done much about it.

The next morning I visited Toul Sleng. I didn’t invite Vanthorn along because I thought it might be too painful for him. Toul Sleng was a converted school building that was used as a detention center where supposed enemies of the State were interrogated, tortured and ultimately sent away to be executed. You were considered an enemy of the State if you were educated, could read or had lived abroad. Over a four-year period, the Khmer Rouge managed to execute nearly all of the country’s best and brightest. They meticulously photographed their victims. The photos were still there on the walls. You could see in the people’s eyes that they knew they were about to die. Very haunting. The interesting thing about this instance of genocide was that it was not carried out on another ethnic group or race or religion but it was one group of Khmer people killing another group of Khmer people. It was strictly done on social class or economic class lines.

The same afternoon I took a car and driver 17 miles south out to Choeung Ek. These were the infamous killing fields. I wanted to see this last notorious site and then spend the rest of my visit during much more pleasant things. Once people had been processed in Phnom Penh, they were taken by truck to these fields and stood up along an open pit. They were either shot in the back of the head or sometimes, in order to save ammunition, they were simply hit with an ax. Often their heads were buried in a different place from their bodies. The skulls have been dug up and stacked. In a later visit, I saw that they were put in a pagoda. As I walked around the open pits from where they had exhumed the bodies, I heard crunching under my feet, I was shocked to discover that I was walking on human bone shards. Enough for one day! Time to get back to Phnom Penh.

No visit to Cambodia would be complete without seeing Angkor Wat. I bought tickets to Siem Reap for Vanthorn and me on Royal Air Cambodge, a questionable domestic carrier that is now defunct. A few years after we flew the airline, Teng Boonma, a Cambodian tycoon, got so angry with Royal Air Cambodge when they lost his luggage that he took out a gun and famously shot out the front tire of the airplane. We had no other choice but to use this airline. The only other way to get there was to go overland for six hours through countryside still controlled by the remnants of the Khmer Rouge Army. The US Embassy had issued a travel advisory that under no circumstances should Americans travel overland. Even though they had been defeated, small bands of young Khmer Rouge with AK47’s were still active. Several foreigners had been kidnapped.

Angkor Wat was well worth the risk we took in getting there, however. Covering more than 400 acres, it is the largest religious monument in the world. Starting out as a Hindu temple in the early 12th century, it later became a Buddhist temple. It is a prime example of Khmer art and architecture. The carvings in the stone are exquisite. We saw the main temple of Angkor Wat plus some of the outlying temples such as Bayon and Ta Prohm. Highly photogenic, Ta Prohm was later used as a set in the movie Tomb Raider. We pretty much had the entire site to ourselves. We saw very few other visitors. In 1992 Angkor Wat only had 5000 visitors for the entire year. In 2015 it had 2 million visitors (mostly Chinese). I’m glad I saw it then even though it was a bit dangerous.

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In fact, I liked Cambodia so much I invited my brother to travel with me there the next year. He had been working on a masters degree and was very interested in art, religion and anthropology. Angkor Wat was like a feast for him. While I enjoyed Angkor for the second time, I was anxious to see as much as I could of the rest of the country. After enjoying Phnom Penh and Angkor Wat, I booked us on a flight to see the beaches of Sihanoukville. Again we flew Royal Air Cambodge. The US Embassy travel advisory was still in effect. No land travel for Americans. It was a 3 1/2 hour bus or car ride to the South. The flight got us there quickly and safely.

Sihanoukville was just starting to develop in 1993. The beaches such as Ochheuteal, Otres, and Serendipity were pristine and uncrowded. Seafood was cheap and plentiful. Even today, the town is considered a travel bargain. In fact, many longtime expat residents of Thailand have been moving there in recent years to escape rising prices in Thailand. Visas are much easier to obtain there as well.

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Brother Bob and I enjoyed our three days at the beach. It was when we were ready to leave the trouble began. I went by the office of the airline to confirm the flight time. The manager told me that the flight had been canceled completely and the next one was scheduled three days from then. It would’ve been lovely to stay there for another three days but the problem was that we had a flight from Phnom Penh to Vientiene, Laos to catch the next day. Our only choice was to go overland if we wanted to make that flight. Well there was a bus a couple of times a day. But the embassy strongly advised against it. A couple of teachers were kidnapped from that bus the year before. Perhaps we can ask to sit in the “no kidnapping” section, I jokingly said to Bob.

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As we walked up the street to the bus station, we saw a young foreigner using a copy machine in a shop. I stopped and asked if he had any ideas how we could get to Phnom Penh. He was an Australian named Steve. He said that as a matter of fact he was going to drive there that very day.  He had a boat moored in the harbor. Someone had stolen his starter motor and he needed to go to Phnom Penh to get a replacement. We were welcome to ride along if we wanted to. Now in my mind I was thinking which is safer bus or car? Well, this fellow was an Australian and had been living there for several years. He seemed to know what was going on. If the road wasn’t safe, he wouldn’t be driving it. Again, the risk paid off. We made it back to the capital, but I have to admit every time we went through one of the many roadblocks, I was a bit anxious. Steve seemed to have all the right decals on his front windshield, however. When we would reach a checkpoint, the Cambodian military would see all his decals, salute us and wave us through. It turns out that Steve was very well connected with the Cambodian military. We suspected his boat was used to bring in special “supplies” for the generals from neighboring Thailand. He didn’t talk about it. And we didn’t ask. We were grateful for the ride back to Phnom Penh.

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Meanwhile back in the capital, the blue berets were still there and they stayed there until the end of that year at a cost of US$1.6 billion. Their second major goal besides peacekeeping was to hold an election. A party affiliated with the royal family won 45% of the vote and a new government was formed in September with Prince Ranariddh as the first Prime Minister. The only problem was that the second-leading vote-getter was a military strongman named Hun Sen. Since he controlled the Army, he demanded to be named Second Prime Minister. From that position, he eventually was able to take over the entire government and eventually banish Prince Ranariddh. To this day, Hun Sen is still the dictator of Cambodia and has managed to suppress any opposition and to “win” every single election for the last 35 years. So much for the United Nation’s ability to establish democracy.

Despite it’s tragic history and the lack of a free political system and economy, Cambodia is still a delightful place to visit. Tourism is quite important to them and they are very friendly and take good care of the tourists. It’s worth a visit.

 

 

 

Buenos Aires, Argentina 2002: Churrasco, Tango and Devaluation

 

Argentina April 2002 023 (2)I love this country.  It’s a piece of Europe stuck on the tip of South America, at least proud Argentinians like to think it is. This was my third time there. Last trip I was able to spend three weeks touring much of the country. I drank the wonderful wines in the province of Mendoza. I tasted the terrific Torontes wine of Salta. I breathed the fresh air of Bariloche. I finished my tour by ascending the Andes to the west. I passed Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America and traveled by bus, boat and train down the other side of the Andes to Chile. This trip I would focus on the delights of Buenos Aries. I wanted to taste the cuisine of the churrascarias, a South American style rotisserie that owes its origins to the fireside roasts of the gaúchos of southern Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. Also, last trip I failed to take in a tango show. This time I would be sure to see one. Generally, I just wanted to enjoy the European ambience of this sophisticated city.Argentina April 2002 018

Carlos, a good friend and colleague originally from Salta, Argentina, recommended the Hotel Dora in the old part of the city.  The charming, historic hotel was perfect. Many attractions were within walking distance.

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First order of business was food. Off to one of my favorite restaurants, La Estancia at 941 Calle Lavalle. I ordered my usual bife de lomo. Juicy and tender as usual, but the real surprise came when they brought the bill. The whole meal including wine came to just over four dollars. The Argentinian peso gone through a major devaluation a few weeks earlier. Devaluations are wonderful for travelers, and I have enjoyed several of them. But you can’t help feeling sorry for the locals whose standard of living just took a major hit. I remember in Bali in 1989 when the Indonesian rupiah lost 80% of its value. A clerk in the Matahari department store told me that her monthly salary was now the equivalent of US$14 and she and her mother had to try to live on that.

As I walked around the streets of the charming European-style city, I saw many more signs of the damage the devaluation was doing. On the bank buildings many angry and even obscene signs had been plastered. Graffiti had been sprayed on doorways, buildings, walkways and streets. The president and his minister of finance were being called many interesting names which cannot be repeated. The basic problem was that the peso had been worth one US dollar. Overnight, the government decreed that it was now worth only 25 cents. A vast amount of savings and purchasing power been wiped out instantly. Of course they blamed the crisis on the International Monetary Fund and American banks instead of their own mismanagement. Argentina has a long history of financial crises dating back to the days of Juan and Eva Peron. As intelligent and sophisticated as they are, Argentinians seem to have a taste for populist politicians who promise the moon and and end up breaking the bank…literally.  Now I could see the results in the streets of the capital.

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Normally I avoid crowds and demonstrations when I travel. On one occasion, I rounded a corner downtown and ran right into a group of protesters banging pots and pans outside of a government office. They were obviously trying to make as much noise as possible. When one older woman saw me she came over to speak with me. In my marginal Spanish, I learned that she had retired from a university where she had worked as a lab technician for 25 years. The government had hit her twice. Early in the economic crisis they had slashed her pension in an austerity move. Now the devaluation had delivered the second blow. Even for a hardened old business professor it was difficult not to be sympathetic. I did wonder to myself, however, if she and her colleagues had voted for the populist politicians who had done this to them. Had they contributed to their own financial demise?

Although the financial crisis had taken some of the shine off of my Buenos Aires visit, I was determined to enjoy the remaining time. I toured the many beautiful parks including La Recoleta, an upscale neighborhood with the cemetery containing Evita Peron’s tomb. I saw the famous balcony at the Casa Rosada presidential palace where Juan and Evita would address the masses ala the movie starring Madonna. I visited La Boca, the colorful working class area with its brightly painted shacks which are reminder of the district’s early immigrant days. Indeed, more than 30% of Argentinians trace their heritage to Italy. This is where the tango had its roots.

Speaking of the tango, because of the devaluation, I was able to get excellent seats for the dinner show at the Esquina Carlos Gardel Tango show. I am sure there are many venues to witness the Tango while in Buenos Aires, but this one is outstanding. The theater is named after the famous French/Argentinian singer, Carlos Gardel who is considered one of the founders of the tango. Have a look at their website for a delightful sample.

Esquina Carlos Gardel Tango Show website