Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

Perhaps the best way to see French Polynesia is to take a cruise on the Aranui 5, a combination cruise ship and freighter. The ship visits three of the island groups in the French territory and delivers freight to all six of the inhabited islands in the Marquesas Archipelago. In this video, I interview Tino, head of freight operations for Aranui, who has been with the company for 35 years. He reminisces about the early days aboard Aranui 1 and 2, when many of the islands did not have docks and everything – sacks of cement, bags of flour, and even vehicles – had to offloaded by hand.

The best way to see French Polynesia is a aboard the Aranui 5, a combination cruise ship and freighter

The best way to see French Polynesia is a aboard the Aranui 5, a combination cruise ship and freighter

Not only do most of the villages now have dock facilities, the Aranui 5 is equipped with two massive cranes that makes this vital lifeline to the remote Marquesas much easier. One afternoon, rather than go ashore, I stayed behind and watched the entire freight operation from the Sky Lounge. From telephone poles to frozen foods to boats and ships, there seemed to be no limits to what the ship could carry. The biggest surprise? When they loaded a Read More

I sometimes wonder what makes a trip memorable. I’ve traveled around 97 countries and six territories and, honestly, there are times when I can’t remember what country I am in, much less which city. My memories of destinations are sometimes indistinct. I can see the houses, the streets, the people, and even recall specific situations, but for the life of me, I can’t remember where they occurred. On the other hand, some places are indelibly etched into my psyche. The ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu blazing gold under a setting sun. Holding hands with the Dalai Lama in Washington D.C. My very first sighting of wild elephants, zebras, and giraffes on safari in Tanzania. But most often, it’s a simple act of kindness or generosity that makes a place memorable. This is precisely what happened in the Marquesas Islands.

Mama Sara, head crafter on the island of Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia, demonstrates how to make a floral headdress known as an "umu hei"

Mama Sara, head crafter on the island of Fatu Hiva in the Marquesas Islands of French Polynesia, demonstrates how to make a floral headdress known as an “umu hei”

Flowers are an important part of the culture and history of French Polynesia. Passengers arriving in Tahiti are presented with handmade floral leis as they disembark planes. The air is heavily scented by trees and bushes that bloom year-round. However, it is in the remote Marquesas Islands where flowers are inextricably woven into the fabric of everyday life. Here the women wear elaborate handmade floral headdresses. Though often referred to as simply “hei,” the formal name for these headdresses is “umu hei.” A contraction of two Polynesian words, “umu” means aphrodisiac or inflamed, and “hei” is the Polynesian word for wreath. Women believe that wearing a crown of flowers heightens their sensuality and makes them more attractive to the opposite sex. Read More

One thing I know for sure. Not all cruises are created equal. I have long eschewed voyages on behemoth cruise ships that carry up to 6,000 passengers and offer on-board amenities like water slides, rock-climbing walls, and miniature golf. Likewise, I have no interest in glitzy ports where the focus is on shopping, or on shore excursions that offer bungee jumping or zip lining. As a traveler who thrives on cultural immersion, I want to learn about the history of a destination, sample authentic cuisine, and talk to locals who can share their beliefs, traditions, hopes, and aspirations. After my two-week French Polynesia cruise, I can honestly say that nobody does that better than Aranui.

The Aranui 5, a combination passenger ship and freighter, offers a French Polynesia cruise around the Marquesa Islands in the South Pacific

The Aranui 5, a combination passenger ship and freighter, offers a French Polynesia cruise around the Marquesa Islands in the South Pacific

The Aranui 5 is operated by Compagnie Polynesienne de Transport Maritime (C.P.T.M.), a third-generation maritime company that was founded as a freight service in 1954 by the patriarch of the Wong family from Tahiti. The firm’s original ship, Aranui I, supplied and conducted trade between Tahiti (located in the Society Island group) and the Tuamotu and Gambiers Archipelagos, three of the five island groups that comprise French Polynesia. In 1978, the company added a commercial line that served the Marquesas Archipelago and in 1984 the Aranui began to offer cruises. Half of the ship was converted into 108 passenger cabins and common areas, while the other half was reserved for freight operations. Today the company’s fourth vessel, the Aranui 5, still delivers supplies to all six of the inhabited islands in the Marquesas. Over the past 34 years, it has helped revitalize the long forgotten Marquesan culture and contributed to the local economy by introducing these islands to more than 45,000 travelers. Read More

Snowqualmie Falls in Washington State

In the late 1890’s, Charles Hinckley Baker was employed as a civil engineer for the Seattle, LakeShore & Eastern Railroad, which operated a rail line that passed Snoqualmie Falls in the State of Washington. From the moment he saw the waterfall, Baker realized its potential for power generation. He convinced his father to lend him money to purchase the land around the falls and began designing a plant to provide power to the fast growing Seattle metropolitan area.

Construction of the plant was an engineering feat like none before it. Baker decided the best way to protect the power generating equipment from the wet winters and spray from the falls was to build it underground. Working from the river’s edge both above and below the falls, crews began drilling horizontal and vertical shafts into the bedrock. Where the shafts met, 270 feet below ground, they carved out Read More

Before there was a Thailand, there was the Mon-speaking Dvaravati culture, which migrated from what is today Myanmar. The Dvaravati occupied present-day central and northern Thailand, and their seat of power was the central city of of Nakhon Pathom. One of the earliest cultures to reside in Southeast Asia, it lasted from around the 6th to the 11th century.

Dvaravati was not so much a civilization as a collection of disparate moated cities. They became the basis for some of the earliest civilizations in Southeast Asia, including the Isaan in eastern Thailand, the Sri Gotapura in central Laos and northeast Thailand, the Thaton Kingdom in lower Burma (Myanmar), and the Hariphunchai Kingdom in northern Thailand. By the 10th century, Dvaravati had come under the influence of the Khmer Empire, in what is present-day Cambodia. Ultimately, central Thailand was invaded and occupied by the Khmer. The moated cities in the north managed to avoid the Khmer invasion, but gradually succumbed to and were absorbed by the Mon-speaking Hariphunchai culture.

Terracotta Buddha head done in the Hariphunchai style, which featured a solemn face, long and bulging eyebrows, and a carved area above the lip that resembles a mustache. On display at the Haripunchai National Museum in Lamphun, Thailand.

Terracotta Buddha head done in the Hariphunchai style, which featured a solemn face, long and bulging eyebrows, and a carved area above the lip that resembles a mustache. On display at the Haripunchai National Museum in Lamphun, Thailand.

According to legend, an ascetic who refrained from worldly affairs was the actual founder of Hariphunchai Kingdom. He invited Chamthewi, a daughter of the King of Lopburi, to ascend to the throne, and helped her to firmly establish Buddhism in the land. Although experts disagree on the exact date of the kingdom’s founding, it is generally accepted that Queen Chamthewi reigned during the mid-to-late 7th century. The city of Lamphun was founded in the 9th century and became the capital of the kingdom. Located about 17 miles southeast of Chiang Mai, Lamphun is one of Thailand’s oldest cities. Read More

Scarlet Passion Flower is a climbing vine native to the Amazon region in South America

My jaw dropped when I discovered this brilliant red bloom on a tree in Lamphun, Thailand. It was the most astonishingly weird flower I’ve ever seen. “Alien” flashed through my mind. The pistil and anthers protruding from the lacy white center petals looked like eyes. I almost expected them to raise their spotted red and green heads to scan me with some otherworldly laser ray. I snapped a few photos, thinking I’d figure out what it was later. Read More