Friday, January 30, 2009

Going to Australia in My Mind

I’ve been paying attention to all things Australian lately because Pipi and I are trying to plan a trip there for this year. Details to follow, if it all comes together.

I also feel I should mention that not everyone celebrated Australia Day on Monday. The country’s Aboriginal population parties on that day about as heartily as America’s indigenous people do on Columbus Day (i.e., not so much) for precisely the same reasons. So don’t think you were the only person not having a knees-up (party) that day.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Happy Australia Day

It has been brought to my attention that in my post-Christmas hibernating mode, I managed to overlook a holiday entirely. (Honestly, after a yuletide season that included many parties, most good but one so awful that all my clothes had to be dry-cleaned afterward, I don’t think I would have been ready for more festivity anyway.)

Monday was Australia Day, and the day came and went at my house with nary a boomerang thrown nor a vegemite container cracked. I’m not sure what I would have done if I had known. I probably would have had a Fosters and watched an offbeat independent film where everyone has unusual names. That sounds like a pretty good plan for the coming weekend, and better late than never. Happy Australia Day, everyone.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

One More Thing…

…About water landings. I had never heard of anything like the Hudson River incident, but it turns out that safe water landings aren’t unprecedented. The San Francisco Chronicle had an article a few days ago about a similar situation that occurred in the Pacific Ocean between San Francisco and Hawaii in 1956. A passenger plane lost power in two out of four engines and had to ditch in the open water. Everyone on board survived that crash, too.

Here’s a link to the article.

Remarkably, video exists of the crash and rescue operation, too—someone on board the Coast Guard ship that pulled everyone out of the water had a movie camera.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Xin Nian Kuai Le

Happy Lunar New Year. If you’ve been feeling like you got 2009 off on the wrong foot, tonight you get another chance, when the year of the Ox begins. May it be a prosperous one.

Friday, January 23, 2009

I’m Not Making This Up

And neither is my father. There is apparently an urban legend going around implying that a frozen chicken has the power to destroy a locomotive. It’s not true. They really do use frozen, not fresh poultry to test engines and windshields. (Well, except for the Air Force, which now uses synthetic birds. This story just keeps getting stranger.)

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Chicken Gun

I actually did learn one other tidbit of information from the Hudson River plane crash. I learned that because bird strikes are not at all unusual, airplane engine prototypes have to be tested for their resiliency to birds before they go into production.

How do they do this? Well, there’s really only one way. There exists a tool that is a distant cousin of the ball lobbers tennis instructors use. (It has several names; “rooster booster” is my favorite.) Engineers load real chickens (my father says they use frozen ones from the supermarket) into the gun and launch them at high speed directly into the spinning turbines. The engines are required to maintain a certain amount of power after the strike. If they don’t, the engine design goes back to the drawing board before it’s used on a commercial aircraft.

Think about this the next time you see a scientist speaking soberly on the news about the safety testing that airplanes have to go through. Now you have some idea what that guy's doing all day long when he’s not on camera.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Audacity

Here’s to choosing hope over fear.

Friday, January 16, 2009

The Unlikely Event of a Water Landing

I think we can all agree that this is an amazing story.

There are a few takeaways for me. The first is the reassuring knowledge that airplanes more or less float, at least for a little while. I didn’t know this.

The second is a reminder that pilots are the most unflappable people in the world. This I did know.

The last thing I have gleaned from coverage of this crash is the conviction that New Yorkers can handle a disaster like no other people on earth. An airplane falls out of the sky and nobody panics. The passengers calmly exit the aircraft and stand on the wing in freezing water up to their knees like they’re waiting for a crosstown bus. Ferry commuters start throwing life jackets overboard and pulling people out of the water like they do it every day.

It’s pretty incredible. I worry that if this had happened in the Bay Area no rescue would have happened before a drum circle was organized and social workers had determined that all the victims actually wanted to be saved. I fear that if I had been on the plane, I would not have calmly waited my turn to exit. I’m pretty sure I would have made a scene, and I think it would have been like the scene in Airplane where the passengers are lining up for the chance to slap the hysterical woman.

I don’t always enjoy being in New York City, but I will admit that the people are a lot tougher than I am.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

What Changed?

I’m not sure why this article got accepted when others haven’t. I suspect that the subject matter was right—the Chronicle runs a lot of stories about Hawaii because it’s a destination that’s hugely popular with Californians.

One variable that’s impossible to discount is the fact that there’s a new executive travel editor at the Chronicle. I liked the old editor personally—I’ve taken classes from him and run into him several times at networking events, and he seems like a really nice guy. The last time I saw him he told me I was doing some good work, but he just never printed my stories. I think they were mostly a little too urban for him. I’ve had more established travel writers tell me they too had trouble getting him interested in city and culture pieces—he seemed more drawn to stories with an outdoor slant.

The new editor said in her introductory column (which was mostly about shoes) that she’s an urban girl, and I almost turned cartwheels. As soon as I read that I started revising some city stories I’ve had sitting around. I’ve already sent one (Shanghai) and will be sending more. The idea is to get in on the ground floor with a new editor still building up a stable of freelancers. We’ll see how that goes.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Hawaii Article to be Published

Last week I posted a serialized account of my adventure on Haleakala. Later in the week, when I’d gotten a little distance from it, I put the two halves together, tightened it up considerably, said a Hail Mary, and flung it at a couple of editors.

I submitted it first to Travelers’ Tales. They publish anthologies of travel literature. I haven’t heard from them yet, but I wouldn’t expect to—they have long turn-around times.

The other editor I sent it to was at the San Francisco Chronicle, a newspaper whose travel section has a long tradition of roundly ignoring me. Yesterday, though, the Chronicle was feeling benevolent and accepted the Hawaii story.

The story is scheduled to run March 8, in a Hawaii-themed issue. It should be in the Departures spot. This is where the editor normally has a column, but it’s not unusual for a guest writer to appear there. I’ll post a link as soon as it’s up.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad…

…Especially when a good alternative surfaces.

There were three things I was hoping to do in Maui. One was snorkeling at Molokini, which I did. Another was driving up Haleakala for the sunrise. The sunrise didn’t happen, but the trip did, so I think that qualifies as a good-faith effort. (And it turns out that I got more out of that trip than I even realized—details tomorrow.)

The last thing on my list was driving to Hana. Once we were in Hawaii, though, I started to realize that people weren’t exaggerating when they said it was an all-day thing. It was hard to understand from a distance how this could be, but then I got there and began to see how narrow roads, traffic, and a culture that values not rushing all contribute to making Hana a very long expedition. It didn’t feel right taking a whole day away from a family celebration, so we didn’t make the drive.

Fortunately, we found an alternate trip that seemed to include many of the important elements of the road to Hana, such as great views, real Hawaiian towns, and island-paced progress. For this trip, we drove Route 30 around the northern shore of west Maui.

The road was narrow and twisting, and provided a beautiful view of sea cliffs and the ocean itself. In one particularly harrowing stretch, where you are not, strictly speaking, supposed to take your rental car, the road went down to one lane. In both directions. Because of the curves, so many pullouts had been created that I wondered why they didn’t just go ahead and carve out a whole lane. If everyone goes slowly enough and keeps an eye on the road ahead, it does work out fine.

We stopped at Julia’s Best Banana Bread in the town of Kahakuloa (free samples!). It was very good. The town itself is interesting, too, isolated as it is by the hard drive. Judging from the number of stands set up along the main drag, I’d say the economy seems to be coconut-candy based. I might have liked to have stayed longer, if only to sample more of the local currency.

The nice thing about this drive is that the road intersects with major highways near the airport, so you don’t have to retrace your route. Getting home is much faster than the outbound trip. We were back almost before anyone even noticed we were gone. We didn’t see quite as many waterfalls as we might have on the road to Hana, but I bet the banana bread was better.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Honolua Bay

As great as Molokini was, it isn’t the kind of trip you can do spontaneously, unless you have a boat that can go out on the open sea. It’s also a little expensive. Luckily, it’s not the only snorkeling option on Maui. It’s not even the only great snorkeling option on Maui.

A few days after the Molokini trip, several of us from the wedding party drove to Honolua Bay, on the northern part of west Maui, for a do-it-yourself diving expedition. We rented masks, fins, and snorkels from a dive shop on the way. The guy at the shop was either not very bright or else he was very stoned. Either way, I can’t say I recommend that particular shop, but I do recommend Honolua Bay.

To get there, you just park by the side of the road and walk about five minutes through a patch of jungle that is inexplicably full of chickens. The bay is semi-circular, fairly shallow, and very clear once you’re away from the beach. There weren’t fish everywhere you looked as in the water around Molokini, but there were big, beautiful schools that were fun to watch.

One thing we saw at Honolua that we didn’t see at Molokini were sea turtles. They were enormous and didn’t seem at all bothered by our presence. Honestly, I’m not sure they even noticed.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have an underwater camera that day, so I don’t have any photos. Here is a link to other Maui shots, though.

Friday, January 09, 2009


Along with the sunrise on Haleakala, one other thing I really wanted to do in Maui was snorkel at Molokini. This was one quest that worked out well.

Molokini is about two and a half miles across the water from Maui. It took about an hour to get there on a catamaran. It would usually take a little less, but the captain stopped the boat and in fact backtracked a little because he sighted a pod of whales that he wanted us to get a look at.

Molokini is not exactly a secret, and the water got a little crowded. Still, the visibility was great and there were a lot of fish. The parts of the crater that are still above water protect the snorkeling area, keeping it very calm. I saw needlefish, puffers, angelfish, lots of coral, and a giant sea cucumber. Eww. On the way back to Maui, we passed through a sea-turtle gathering. All that and it was only lunchtime when we got back to the marina where we’d parked. That was a good morning of sightseeing.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Surfing Goats

Did you know that goats can surf? I didn’t, either, but these are especially cool goats. They live at the Surfing Goat Dairy, in the town of Kula, on Maui. The dairy is in upcountry (i.e., not coastal) Maui. They offer great tours with plenty of cheese tasting.

Surfing Goat makes more varieties, or I guess I should say flavors of cheese than most dairies. What avant-garde chocolate makers are doing with truffles these days, Surfing Goat is doing for goat cheese. They start with a basic creamy chevre base (called “Udderly Delicious”), and add all kinds of things I’ve never seen in cheese before. Some work really well, like the O Sole Mio, which has sun-dried tomatoes in it, and some are a little out there. I never tried the Mandalay blend, for example, which contains apple bananas and curry, but I don’t think I need to. Most of the cheese was really good, though, and the tours are fun. You can feed the goats, who are gentle and friendly, and see them milked.

All the goats (there are about 80 on the farm right now) have names, but unfortunately I didn’t write down what this one is called. She was a character.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Come Back Soon

We stopped at a visitor center about halfway down the mountain. There was a nene (wild goose) crossing sign near the parking lot, but no nene were out in the rain. I worried that this meant the two of us had less sense than a goose. Outside the main building was a silversword plant, a rare succulent that grows only on Hawaiian volcanoes. In Hawaiian, the plant is called ahinahina, which means “very gray.” In spite of the name, it’s normally an attractive plant, especially if you catch it in flower. This one, though, was covered in the withered remains of its once-in-a-lifetime blooming cycle. Wind-battered and rain-spattered, this specimen was not just very gray; it was also very close to death.

Inside, though, all was warm and bright. There was a friendly park ranger named Sandi on duty and she listened patiently while we whined about driving all this way and missing out on the sunrise. When we paused for breath she asked gently if we’d ever heard it said that the journey is more important than the destination. I forced an indulgent smile. Yes, of course I’d heard that, and 99% of the time I agreed. But this was, so far, a hundredth-percentile day, and I was too wet, too cold, and too far from a good cup of coffee to imagine my attitude changing.

Sandi went on, though. The journey we had just taken, she said, from the West Maui coast to the Haleakala summit, was like driving from New Mexico to Alaska, if you considered the number of climate zones you pass through on both trips. Looking at it that way, it was quite a journey we’d had that morning, and maybe a little more appreciation was in order.

Sandi further redeemed herself by giving us some practical information, including the visitor center phone number and the URL for a live summit webcam, both of which might have told us before leaving the hotel that Haleakala was socked in and likely to remain that way all day.

The ranger left us with some last words. “Haleakala is sending you a message,” she assured us. “She wants you to come back.” Sandi let that sink in, then added, “She doesn’t say that to everyone.”

By the time we left the visitor center, Haleakala was driving her point home with an intensity she must reserve for her densest visitors. The pounding rain continued all the way down the mountain and followed us back to the normally dry Ka’anapali coast. It was still raining the next morning. The storm eventually passed, but we got caught up in the excitement and late nights of the family wedding that had brought us to the island, and we never did take Haleakala up on her invitation.

Someday I will, though. It’s not every day a volcano offers you a personal summons, and when Haleakala speaks, I, for one, listen. I don’t know when I’ll be on Maui next, but when I am, I fully intend to get myself to the summit of Haleakala again and finally have that spiritual sunrise experience.

I’m going to check the webcam first, though.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

The Darkest Hour is Just After the Dawn

What’s the exact opposite of “spiritual?” I don’t think we have a word for this in our language. Hawaiian does, though, and the word is Haleakala.

Haleakala is, of course, really the name of a dormant volcano on the island of Maui. The House of the Sun is about 10,000 feet high, and is both Maui’s most conspicuous physical feature and one of its biggest attractions. It’s considered especially auspicious to visit the volcano’s summit at dawn. On a good morning, the sun, visible across a massive crater-like depression, appears to rise out of a cauldron of cloud. On a great morning, the mist turns fiery red and orange and the lunar landscape is illuminated in adobe hues. And a couple of times a year, if some of the more hyperbolic descriptions I’ve read are true, angels actually sing. “Spiritual” is a word I encountered repeatedly while researching the Haleakala sunrise experience, and so I put an early-morning trip to the top on the short list of things we absolutely had to do on Maui.

Pipi and I scheduled the trip for our first full day in Hawaii, reasoning that jet-lag would make the early wake-up call less painful. It did, but 3:45 still felt very early to two people who were supposed to be on vacation. Nothing was open, so we made peanut butter breakfast sandwiches and coffee in our room, and set out on the two-hour drive to the top of Haleakala.

For a volcano, Haleakala is pretty easy to drive on. The road is well paved and wide enough for two cars. It’s very dark and curvy, though, and often choked with bicycle-laden vans ferrying riders to the top for the popular 37-mile sunrise coast down the mountain. On the morning we drove it, there was the added challenge of dense fog, which started at about 5,000 feet of elevation.

It was the kind of fog that is so thick it’s hard to imagine that it’s sunny anywhere. And it may not have been. It certainly wasn’t sunny at the top of Haleakala. In fact, it was about as far from sunny as I’ve ever seen. At a little past 6am, it was dark, with a howling wind blowing and fog swirling. Sleet pinged off the car like buckshot. Visibility was about 50 feet. When I finally gathered the courage to get out of the car, I accidentally started down a hiking trail instead of the path to the observatory, but was luckily turned back by a blast of wind that could have knocked down an eight-year-old. I was wearing what at sea level had seen like a nervous-Nellie number of layers, but the cold still took my breath away. As I scurried back to the car with my head down and my hand on my hat, I had a little epiphany, the closest I came to a spiritual moment that whole morning. “This is how people die on mountains,” I said to myself. (And in my head, it didn’t even sound melodramatic.)

When Pipi and I finally found the visitors’ center, with about 20 minutes to spare before theoretical sunrise, we found it already filled with a rainbow coalition of disappointed people from around the globe. I heard sulking in at least three languages. We all milled around until our watches said the sunrise had occurred. It was lighter now, and the sleet had turned to regular rain. It was barely 7am (although we were already thinking about lunch) and already we’d had a big setback. As we got in the car and prepared ourselves for the long, wet plummet back to the coast, I wondered if there were any way to salvage some crumbs of spirituality from the day.