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July 2004

Summertime has come to Southern California. Yes, believe it or not we do experience a distinctly different summer season. While in the winter months daytime temperatures average in the seventies, the highs in July regularly break one hundred. Air conditioners strain valiantly against the sun, at times a losing battle in uninsulated apartments and homes built a generation ago. And too often the nearby San Gabriel mountains are lost in the thick soup of summer smog. During the winter months, especially after a rainstorm, these mountains stand clear and bright above Pasadena and Glendale. Not today.

But summer has its blessings. Nights are nearly perfect, the air seemingly just an extension of your skin. Along the coasts, fog and strong breezes keep the weather pleasant, even cool, and the ocean's cold demeanor softens some, making brief forays into the Pacific possible. Best of all, I work a reduced schedule which allows me to arrive at school around 10 a.m. and leave at 1 p.m. and we never have class on Fridays.

While not as dramatic as my recent news about Shannon and the baby, there are interesting developments in my work life as well. Most importantly, I was granted tenure during the spring. It becomes official in September, along with a change of title. I will soon be associate professor of geography, an improvement over the more prosaic instructor of geography. The job security this implies is both rare and reassuring in an age when the ideal workforce is deemed "flexible" and many companies feel little or no responsibility for the welfare of their employees (outside of the corporate board itself). Barring a massive collapse of the public coffers in California, I'm essentially guaranteed employment for the rest of my career. Moreover, I will benefit from a California state pension, though I no longer pay into Social Security and will get next to nothing from that system. All of this is even more important now that there is a baby on the way.

I continue to teach diverse geography classes, including Geographic Information Systems (GIS). Generating student interest in GIS (see www.gis.com) is a struggle, despite its obvious value in the marketplace. Despite this, the college has pushed ahead with the construction of a cutting edge laboratory for my use. This incredible facility includes 28 top-of-the-line desktop computers with large flat-screen monitors. Everything is networked to a series of printers, a scanner, a large-format plotter, a digital overhead projector, and the Internet.

In the last few months I've traveled to China, Costa Rica, and San Francisco. In a little more than a week I'll be taking ten students camping in northern California, southern Oregon, and the Sierra Nevada. The highlights of this trip will include nights in Redwood, Crater Lake, and Yosemite national parks. This is now the third year I've offered a Geography of the National Parks class. Looking back on previous trips I realize that often the two weeks spent traveling and camping with students were among the best of each year. It's wonderful to be paid to do the things you'd want to do anyway.

Immediately after I return from the mountains, Shannon and I leave for a week in the islands of Fiji, followed by a week in Sydney, Australia. Fiji is famous for its intact coral reefs and its word-class surf spots. Sydney a liberal city replete with parks, beaches, bays, and a public transport system that includes many ferries and water taxis is my favorite city anywhere.

I continue to live in Pasadena, where I'm thrilled to be able to walk to grocery stores, bookstores, restaurants, and shopping malls. It's a great little urban enclave in a region that is often described as a group of suburbs looking for a city.

Hope everyone is well and please stay in touch. I’ll be writing about this summer’s travels soon.

Love,

Michael

 

August 17, 2004

Well, Shannon and I are now back from Fiji and Australia. Here are some excerpts from that trip:

Traffic to get in to LAX was beyond belief. The vast majority of the problem was with the Arrivals lane, but everybody had to queue. Traffic was backed up well down the 105. We finally arrived at the airport with about one hour to spare. Turned out, however, that our Qantas flight was actually an Air Pacific flight. I have no idea how we were supposed to know this, but we marched off for the insanely chaotic Tom Bradley International Terminal.

When I die, I sure hope they come up with someplace nicer to name after me than a hectic airline terminal. Anyway, when we finally got to the counter it was clear that passengers were already boarding the plane. Not until the woman behind the counter asked for our passports did I realize that in my haste I had neglected to grab all of my gear. My friend Ara drove off with my bag (and passport). Quickly, Shannon realized that I had called Ara earlier in the day and thus her phone had stored his number. I caught him before he'd even left the airport. With help from an airline employee, we cut the luggage security line. Then I ran outside to wait for Ara to circle back to the terminal. This he did as fast as possible, which was, in other words, torturously slowly. He handed me my bag and I ran back to the ticket counter to find they had given us a two minute deadline. We made it with two minutes to spare. No problem. Moreover, since there was such a mad rush, the ticket agent neglected to charge for the surfboard bag. Maybe I should plan to be that late every time. On the other hand, my blood pressure is only now finally dropping and the steam hissing from my ears is finally evaporating. On second thought, I'll arrive three days early next time and just drink coffee or something.

Arrived in Nadi in the early morning darkness. Standard airport-issue Pacific Islander musicians greeted the arriving flights. They looked like they'd rather be at home watching television. Disoriented and fatigued tourists stumble about looking bewildered. Each is eventually intercepted by the advance forces of the tourism army. Those here in the airport seem to work together and we were quickly directed to a counter and then a waiting area for Seashell Cove Resort.

I've always been fascinated by open air airports in the tropics. The roof is elevated a few feet above the two story structure itself and noisy black and white birds flit in and about.

Nearly one half of all Fijians are Hindu, so-called Indo-Fijians. Certainly the taxi drivers are all Indo-Fijian. Many of the tourists carry massive packs and are clearly headed to backpacker and hostel accommodations.

 

08/18/04 6:55 AM Seashell Cove Resort, Viti Levu

Going surfing over coral reef on an offshore reef for the first time this morning. I'm a bit nervous about it. I've heard so much about coral cuts and broken bones and people and boards washing over the reef that I'm spooked. Plus it's windy already today and there is supposed to be an increase in swell size. Big and blown out is not what I seek.

1:55 PM Seashell Cove

Managed to return in one piece this morning. That's a good start. One guy from Australia, Chester, broke his nose and gashed his forehead on his board during a duck dive. As usual, when I first went out, when I was fresh, I did well. Soon, however, a couple of big sets humbled me and I became overly cautious, spending most of my time trying to find the shoulder and stay there. That was easier said than done, though, since there was weird swell wrapping in from multiple directions and tons of chop on the water. Inevitably a really big set would find you and I was pretty relieved when I successfully ducked under the first one that caught me. Still, my first wave was exhilarating. Reef waves definitely move faster than beach break. I felt fleeter than a falcon.

On the way out to Wilkes Reef we passed the judging stand for Cloudbreak, Tavarua, Restaurants, and Namotu. Cloudbreak was blown out and is off limits to us anyway as most surf breaks in Fiji are controlled by particular resorts via particular villages. The island of Tavarua, the most famously exclusive surfer resort in the world, was pretty, but not nearly as isolated as I had imagined. It's just a short boat ride from the largest Fijian island, Viti Levu. The wind was offshore at the left called Restaurants, yet another restricted Tavarua break, and the guys on it seemed to be having a great time. You could actually paddle out directly from Tavarua and the deep blue water in the calm behind Tavarua looked great. Definitely a nice honeymoon place, but at $1700 a week it's a bit rich for my tastes.

8/20/04 Raintree Lodge, Suva, Fiji

Yesterday Shannon and I, along with a couple we met (Mitro and Laura) at Seashell Cove, took the local bus to Sigatoka (1.25 hours) and then the Sunbeam Express to Suva (2.5 hours) where we grabbed a cab (Mr. Singh) to the lodge. The total cost of the trip was $13 Fijian. The local bus was great fun. They have no proper windows and thus are a kind of open air tour of the countryside. I did notice green plastic tarps with dusty plastic windows that can be unfurled if rain appears. The bus wandered lazily along the dirt road that lies about a mile inland along the coast south of Nadi.

At every village and even in between villages when flagged the bus stopped to pick up or disgorge passengers. Twice it stopped so the Indo-Fijian bus driver could do some kind of quick maintenance on the throttle or clutch or some such thing. Almost exactly half the passengers were ethnic Fijians while the other half were Indians. There seemed to be no animosity between them, even if their styles are quite different. The Indo-Fijians are more reserved and somewhat more officious than the Fijians. They are more likely to wear collared shirts or dress slacks. They are polite and friendly, but somewhat private. Their hair is immaculately groomed, especially the children. The Fijians on the other hand are boisterous, even loud people who laugh a great deal and often shout out greetings and farewells across streets, rooms, restaurants and the like.

Children of both cultures eagerly wave to passing buses and get a real charge when noticed by white tourists. Education in Fiji is freely available, though not compulsory. Mostly it seems to be organized by various Christian, Muslim, and Hindu churches. Frankly, along the rural road we traveled yesterday the most common structures were schools. They ranged from one room schoolhouses to large complexes. At one point we passed by an Indian school where a large group of uniformed schoolboys waved and yelled energetically as our bus passed.

Young backpackers loading up in their gear in the morning and mounting their heavy packs appear like eager young soldiers. Young men and women who look barely capable of a morning jog hoist massive bags of gear onto their soft young shoulders and march off looking for the next adventure. They are seemingly oblivious to fear, hardship, poverty, and discomfort. Collectively they make up a sort of army, hundreds of thousands strong at any time worldwide. They are as close to a Pacifist Special Forces that the world currently has, I suspect.

8/21/04

Rain, rain go away; come again another day. Raining now for 16 hours. Hope it clears a little tomorrow. Note: all Fijian taxi drivers are named Mr. Singh. They may all be the same person. This drier side of Fiji is quieter and less populous. We both like it better.

8/22/04 7:30 AM

OK, it's been raining for more than 24 hours continuously now. That's just about enough of that. Here are a couple of quick observations about Seashell Cove and Fiji in general. Seashell Cove Resort is set along the coast in amongst mangroves and low tide mud flats. It's not unattractive and there is a small beach a short walk away, but it's only really useful at high tide. They surf the breaks in and around Tavarua and Namotu, principally Wilkes Reef (Wilkes was a US naval officer who charted Fiji) and mini-Cloudbreak. Occasionally they surf the resort breaks, including Cloudbreak, but don't great deal. The dorms are a good value too, but be ready for partying and nasty toilets. The bures are the best bet. The suites, while larger, are essentially the same but cost much more. The bar and salt water pool are great. The restaurant is passable. A huge luxury Marriot resort is in the first stages of construction. From the look of things it will include a marina and will significantly change the character of the area. Our taxi driver was interested in the jobs it would create. When asked about Fijian minimum wages, he explained that before the 2000 coup there was a minimum wage, but now people will work at almost any wage and there is no enforcement of current wage laws.

8/22/04 2:55 PM SkyLodge Hotel Complex, Nadi, Fiji

Amazing. It's still raining and shows no sign of abating. We took another expensive ($45) taxi to this hotel. Absurd guidebooks do us little good. There was no hint that this was such an interesting and well-run place in our Lonely Planet guide. By mentioning mini-golf and mini-tennis they made it sound tacky. Instead it is a clean, inexpensive ($66 for air-con double) place with lots of character, a great pool, and grounds that are more reminiscent of a college campus or a park than a hotel. The whole complex is surrounded by a wall and that’s reassuring here in the city. Moreover, the airport transfers appear to be free and there is a crowd of cheery international backpackers about the place.

There are nice looking sailboat day trips to the islands from Nadi for less than $100. If the weather were better or if I'm here again that's definitely something to do. Poor Shannon did not see a single sandy beach or coral reef.

8/23/05

11:00 AM 11,000 meters above the Pacific, southwest of New Caledonia

We left Fiji uneventfully this morning. Uneventfully, that is, if you don't count poor Shannon vomiting her guts out yet again. She still gets sick most every day. I'll need to pressure her to mention it to her doctor. Skylodge got us to the airport bright and early and once again I was not charged for the surfboard. I may not get much surf this trip, but at least I didn't have to pay an arm and a leg to transport the board. In fact, I'll use that as an excuse to get a rental car so that I can find some Sydney surf. When we left it was still raining and showed no sign of stopping. That means it had rained for at least 50 hours continuously and this was on the "dry" side of Fiji. Obviously it takes a bit more time or better luck to hit tropical beach weather in Fiji.

Also, as I may have pointed out already, it was surprisingly cool in Fiji, especially when it was raining. I often wore pants or needed a light jacket. It was a pleasant place but, as usual, I felt a small wave of relief upon returning to the airport and ordering a fancy coffee. I always feel a little bit like I've survived some great adventure when I travel in the less-developed world, even though this time I stayed in nice hotels and only briefly traveled with the locals. The unfamiliarity of another culture, the things not understood, the real possibility of crime, the certainty of discomfort; all of these add up to an adventure in my book. Sydney will be comparatively simple. Only problem will be driving on the wrong side of the road, but I've managed that before in New Zealand.

Afterthoughts: always order the curry. Indian food is good. Fijian food, not so good.

The Fijians are incredibly friendly, especially the ethnically Fijian. I wonder if they've been encouraged to wave to tourists. Tourism is about 18% of their GDP.

8/24/04 Savoy Hotel, Double Bay, Sydney, NSW 12:15 PM

Good surfing at Maroumbra this morning. Neighborhood has a working class feel. Lots of brick apartment blocks and homes. Beach is beautiful. It's a long bay with fine, squeaky sand and crystal clear blue water like all of Sydney's beaches. Apparently, Maroumbra takes almost any swell. Surfed a medium low tide and many waves were closing out, but it felt good to be in the water. Water temp is cold by Sydney standards but felt like about 65 to me. I could have used a lighter wetsuit Getting out of the water, I thought again that Sydney might be the perfect place for me to live. Good beaches, outdoor cafes, bookstores, good wine, sailboats and public ferries abound. The weather is perfect. They even have thunderstorms, which I very much miss.

8/26/04 Savoy Hotel, Double Bay, Sydney, NSW 5:05 PM

Yesterday we drove down the Princes Highway through Wollongong and Nowra to the small towns of Milton and Ulladulla. We stayed in a great little place, The Ulladulla Guesthouse. It's a five star place, but since it's the winter it only cost us $139 AUS. Nice gardens, jacuzzi inside and out and one in the room. Nice French restaurant was closed last night but looked good. It's a cute little town but needs a college. Wollongong has a college but also has coal mines and steel works. Too industrial.

The real highlight of the trip was Bendalong, a great little beach just south of Jervis Bay. Beautiful white sand, great vegetated sand dunes, smooth sandy bottom break with strong offshore winds, and, as usual, crystal clear water. Lots of friendly guys in the water, most of them Australian tourists. Had a nice chat with Mark Burridge, who used to be #2 longboarder in the world and who is married to Pam Burridge, who was #1 woman's longboarder for awhile. They live along the great little 13 km road to Bendalong. The town of Bendalong is tiny, only about 500, if I remember correctly. Probably could buy some property there now. Sydney is getting closer every year, apparently. Mark said that heading further south from Ulladulla gets you less crowded conditions and some good waves. The surrounding area, even near the coast, is largely cattle farms with the occasional boutique winery. It’s really quite beautiful, but I’m not convinced it’ll stay that way.

On the way home today we drove inland through the beautiful Kangaroo Valley and up into the Great Dividing Range. Stopped in Milton National Park at a place called Fitzroy Falls. A small stream cascades 265 feet off the rock cliffs at the top of the mountains. Nice displays explaining the ever-disappearing wildlife. Koalas are now rarely seen. Wombats are doing OK. Platypus are still around. Wallabies are struggling to hold on. House cats, domestic dogs, foxes, and development are eating away at all of them. We saw none of them, not even a "roo." Only wildlife we saw was at Sydney’s fantastic zoo.

 

8/29/04 Sydney International Airport, Australia

Tamarama Marine Drive is a must see road running between Bondi and Coogee. Checked real estate ads today. Prices here are as bad as at home, maybe worse! Rents are better, though. I should consider spending summers (their winters) here. Of course, I could come in the winter (their summer) too, but it would cost much more. Would have to go somewhere more remote at that time of year. Darren may be right. The thing to do is buy property somewhere accessible and less expensive and rent it out. With that equity or income, I can stay wherever I'd like. Certainly that makes more sense than investing somewhere that I'd have to rent out for only part of the year. That’s too many headaches unless you've got a long-term tenant and then you've got nowhere to stay anyway.

 

September 6, 2004

Obviously those notes were a bit rough, but I have little time now that school is started and I wanted all of you who are dear to me to have some idea what I’ve been up to.

Soon you’ll receive a link to more photographs from the trips.

Stay in touch.

Love,

Michael

Pasadena, California