rob brianna sail travel voyage explore

Speaking the Native Tongue: Tongan and Malagasy

Posted on 1 CommentPosted in Community and Culture, Traveling

rob brianna sail travel voyage explore

We’ve been in Tonga now for about two weeks, in the northernmost island group called Vava’u. I think we might stay a while, make a few friends, learn about the culture and generally just try to sink in a bit. Its something we have not had the chance to do so far on this trip, because we’ve moved fairly quickly. I’ll admit that I haven’t had much motivation to learn any new languages so far, for many reasons (laziness being one). But also, many of the native languages — like in French Polynesia — are in the process of being lost, or in some cases, marginally resurrected like in the Marquesas. French is taught in schools and widely spoken, even among locals. It was a great opportunity for me to work on the French that I learned in college and reinforced in Madagascar, where French is the second language.

Another language I learned in Madagascar is Malagasy, the native tongue. While French is spoken throughout most of the country, Malagasy is the day to day language and essential to learn if you want to work or travel in anywhere but the biggest cities. For me, learning Malagasy was the key into a secret culture, a whole new world of customs, activities and, frankly, a completely different way of looking at the world. Sure, French is a different language, but it has similar grammar patterns to English and sounds somewhat familiar to any speaker of a Romane language (Spanish, French, etc). But knowing Malagasy was like having a stamp of authenticity. A few well spoken words were all I needed to make a smile, get an invitation into someone’s home or, on certain days, entry into some ritual, rite or ceremony that was surely going to blow my mind.

Speaking Malagasy is quite different. For example: subjects come at the end of the sentence, and the passive voice is very common in expressions. The pronunciation is altogether different (my Malagasy friends would hold their noses and talk to imitate English speakers), and direct translations from English can be extremely difficult. I had to turn my mind upside down and inside out to really understand and to speak it like a native, but eventually I began to speak without thinking first. I even began to dream in Malagasy and on rare occasions, I still do.

So what’s this have to do with Tonga? One of the things I do in almost any country I visit is try to learn some basic phrases: hi, how are you, etc. If I have time and want to go deeper, I’ll then move on to some of the most commonly used verbs (have, want, etc) and then the numbers. Tongans speak English, but only to foreigners. As I listened toTongan on the street during our first few days, it sounded familiar to me and, walking around town, I felt instantly more at home then I have since leaving Missoula. The Tongan language has lots of vowels, and they often use what is called a glottal stop, kind of a staccato type effect. Think of a weak stutter or a mild cough between words. I felt like I had heard this language before.

But it was the numbers that really got me. And here’s why: below I have listed the Tongan numbers on the left and the Malagasy numbers on the right (as I know them from the region I lived).

1. taha    iray
2. oa        roa
3. tolu      telo
4. fa         efa
5. nima   dimy
6. ono      eni
7. fitu        fito
8. valu      valo
9. hiva      sivy
10. tongofulu     folo

At first I was shocked. On paper, they look very similar. In pronunciation, they sound remarkably alike. The numbers for 7 and 8 sound identical (pronounced fee-too and vahl-oo). As I learned more, the similarities continued. The word for year is ta’u in Tongan and tao in Malagasy, and so on. I’ll admit that the two languages have less in common than not, but I’m still intrigued by the fact that they are even close. I had known that Malagasy was more like Indonesian than many of the languages in eastern Africa, which are geographically closer. Its one of the reasons I’ve always wanted to get to Indonesia on this trip. But upon further research (with some shoddy internet connections here in Nei’afu), I did a little research Tongan and Malagasy are actually part of the same language family, called the Malayo-Polynesian family, which extends from western Polynesia on through the Indian Ocean (mostly centered around the equator). Malagasy is considered to be the westernmost extent of this group and takes its base from dialects in the southeast corner of Borneo.

The people I lived with in Madagascar along the southwest coast were the Vezo: the sailors, the seafaring people who apparently travelled from Indonesia through the Indian Ocean, by the Middle East, along the coast of Africa and eventually over to Madagascar. Along the way, they picked up a little Arabic, a little Swahili, a little Bantu, and later on, a little French and English. The ancestors of the Tongans must have travelled in the opposite direction, and now here I am — another oceangoing nomad, looking for that promised land and grabbing a few kernels of language on the way.

brianna randall rob roberts sail travel pacific adventure voyage


brianna randall rob roberts sail travel pacific adventure voyage

Just Call Us Palangis

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Community and Culture, Traveling

brianna randall rob roberts sail travel pacific adventure voyage

I wanted to name this post “Not Naked in Tonga,” since the traffic on my Dancing Naked post proved that anything with “naked” in the title garners exponentially more attention. I refrained (barely). Instead, I chose the educational route. “Palangi” is the Tongan word for pale-skinned foreigners like Rob and me. But just so you know: “not naked” is an understatement in the very religious country of Tonga, where I had to scrounge up clothes that fully cover my knees and shoulders.

Ten days ago, we arrived in the city of Neiafu on the island of Vava’u in the Kingdom of Tonga. Yes, we live in a kingdom now. (In fact, we almost rented the Tongan Princesses’ country home for a week, but decided it was too far from the community center.) After two months as crew aboard Compass Rose(y), we waved a final farewell as she sailed west to Fiji. Rob and I are officially land lubbers again, at least for now.

brianna randall rob roberts sail travel pacific adventure voyage

Over the past six months, we sailed 6,000 miles on six different boats. We visited 16 spectacular islands in seven different countries. During our journey across one-quarter of the planet, we crossed 6 timezones, including the International Dateline (yes, we’re officially back to the future!). In short, we have a lot to process. It’s time to take a little break on land to let our beach-soaked brains catch up to our wave-weary bodies here in tomorrow-land.

I gotta admit: I don’t miss crewing on sailboats. It’s pretty awesome to have our very own space and our very own autonomy. We don’t have to ask permission to go ashore, or step up on the couch to let the other person pass by. We can wander the roads for hours, and take our time talking to locals or buying bread or finding a coffee shop. That doesn’t mean we’re done sailing forever, by any means. This is just a little vacation.

Our immersion into the Neiafu community is exactly what we need after constant movement. We want to stay put, ask questions, go slow, learn Tongan, get to know the people and the place. While cruising has plenty of perks, we haven’t been able to immerse ourselves in one place long enough to truly feel like we know it well. This is mostly due to the fact that we chose not to buy our own boat, which meant we had to stick to a faster-than-we-prefer travel schedule.

For instance: my friend, Kipper, asked recently if I could write more about the economy, history, or cultural traditions of the places we’ve visited. I’d love to! But that requires spending more than an hour or two on shore to talk to the people that live in these countries, and staying more than a few days at each island. That’s why we decided to become palangis — to immerse ourselves in the Kingdom of Tonga.

brianna randall rob roberts sail travel pacific adventure voyage

Only 5,000 people live on Vava’u, and it feels like we’ve already met half of them. Check out what the results of our immersion this past ten days:

1) We rented a small house for a week behind the biggest church in town, where we adopted a local dog and named him Nels.
2) Rob launched weekly open mic nights at a bar downtown, where we performed stunning covers of Johnny Cash and the Lumineers.
3) I started teaching yoga three mornings per week at a waterfront cafe.
4) We set up a “job” at a local organic farm, where we will work a few hours per day in exchange for room and board.
5) We got invited to an awesome dance party on the beach.  There were costumes (need I say more?).
6) We started volunteering at the Vava’u Environmental Protection Association, and are helping to organize the nonprofit’s fundraiser this weekend.
7) We got a library card.
8) We joined a biweekly Tongan jazzercise class.
9) We don’t look twice when pigs cross the road.
10) We can say basic Tongan phrases like:
> Malo e leilei. Fefehake? Hello, how are you?
> Ko hai ho hingoa? What’s your name?
> Oku ou saia tau’olunga. I like dancing.

Tonga feels a lot like home. We like it here, and are happy to be palangis in this little paradise.

brianna randall rob roberts sail travel pacific adventure voyage

off the rack brianna randall dancing

Last Montana Dance Performance

Posted on 2 CommentsPosted in Dance, Yoga and Fitness

off the rack afro brazilian dance bri randallTwo weeks ago, I shook my booty in a last hoorah onstage for Missoula’s signature (and super awesome) Off the Rack fundraiser event.  The purpose: raise money for our local Blue Mountain Clinic and raise awareness about sexual choice and diversity.  The unifying theme: costumes made of condoms.  My friend Gillian calls it: “Our community’s best talent show.”  It features everything from artistic body painting (yup, that’s me in green body paint at last year’s show…and Cass in a bra made of condoms…and Rob riding a bike in socks) to costume design, comedy routines and hula-hooping.

off the rack brianna randall dancingrob and bri and cass in off the rack dancingThis was my fourth consecutive performance at Off the Rack, dancing alongside Gillian and other talented teachers from the Downtown Dance Collective.  It combines all of my favorite things: I love dancing.  I love Missoula.  I love costumes.  And I love a good cause.

Check out these videos that Rob filmed to watch a few of the dances from the 2013 Off the Rack Show.  And then go check it out in person next February.

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friends dressed up in costume at our wedding in caras park in missoula

Finding Our Center in Missoula

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Community and Culture, Family and Friends

Missoula Montana downtown over Clark Fork RiverMy boss, Karen, likes to say that Missoula, Montana is the center of the universe.  It’s certainly been the center of our universe this past decade, as we live and breathe the mountains, rivers and people that make this Rocky Mountain town so magical.

We’ve also lived with the not-so-magical Missoula moments: grey funky winter air settling over those iced-up rivers for days on end; wildfire smoke creeping along mountainsides (and inside lungs) during August; and familiar faces feeling a little too familiar when you’re craving anonymity and diversity.

fall colors downtown missoula with abe on north hillsWe choose to live here for many reasons, but the main one is this: community.  If Missoula is the center of the universe, then community is the center of Missoula.  It’s the reason we make less money, endure long (really long) winters, and smoky summers.  It’s the reason amazing, unexpected things unfold in the valley.  It’s the reason we’re not selling our house when we leave for our adventures.  It’s the reason we will always return.

Last night, I went to a fundraising dinner sponsored by the University of Montana’s Environmental Studies program, fondly referred to as “EVST” by students and alum (the code used for class registration).  Those of you who read my post after an EVST retreat in September know that graduate school profoundly shaped me.  EVST is more than just school, it’s an experience: it provided me with a career, passion, friends, confidence, and even the courage to voyage into the unknown on this journey we’re about to embark upon.

sunset at caras park in downtown missoulaAnd, most importantly, EVST and its people form the center of my Missoula community.

At the dinner, I looked around the room and listened to my friends talking about why they love the program, which is also why many of them love Missoula.  It gives us fire in the belly, connection to place, values-based advocacy, a life support system, sharing circles, starships, drinking partners, visionaries, and ski buddies.

The people in that room just get me.  They get why we’re leaving our beautiful home, good jobs, and comfortable  community.  They get why we want to write this blog, meet new people, bumble through foreign cultures, and take risks without knowing the exact outcomes.  And they congratulate us on making the leap into that unknown.

friends dressed up in costume at our wedding in caras park in missoulaBiking home after dinner, I felt all of the connections in my universe wrapping around me like the silky strands of a spider web.  These strands are deeply and irrevocably interwoven with Missoula, my family who lives here, and my community who will still be here when we get back.  Cheers to that.

Downing Mountain in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana with Cassidy Randall

A Pair of Skis Saved My Soul

Posted on 5 CommentsPosted in The M.U.P. Files

Downing Mountain in the Bitterroot Mountains of Montana with Cassidy Randall

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.”  – Edward Abbey.

by: Cassidy Randall

(M.U.P. Files contributor)

I am shaped by sun and desert. I wonder that snow has found its way into my bones, into my dreams, the space behind my eyes. It has become my addiction, my religion.

I believe that a pair of skis saved my soul.

I am in the midst of a torrid love affair with our local ski hill, one that has not abated for the years under our belts.

Sweet ski powder turns in the Mission Mountain backcountry

But it’s the wild beauty of the backcountry that draws me back again and again – the seduction of an unbroken expanse of snow, the reliance on our knowledge and sometimes tenuous judgment, the faith in finding grace on an empty mountaintop.

Skiing in the ranges of the Rocky Mountains has taught me to appreciate my body for what it can do, and not for what it looks like – unless what it looks like is strong and ambitious. I’m in love with the humility of looking out across a sea of peaks, knowing that I could not possibly know all of them the way I have come to know the one I am standing on top of – because there are so many, because they have settled like wise old men into the cold winter, because they do not bow to the human need for access.

I am addicted to exhaustion. To aching lungs and a wandering mind. To the sound of nothing but my breathing, my skis breaking a new trail, and the quiet noise of snow falling. I am addicted to how damn hard this can be.

Sunlight on snow in mountains

I believe that skiing untouched snow is the closest I come to flying.

When the rush has opened up my body and mind, and washed them clean so entirely that joy and exhilaration is all that makes them new again – that is the feeling I dream of. For a sense of gratitude so strong that it lingers well into the night, into the next day, in my bones and dreams and the space behind my eyes.

I am graced by the moments after the rush.





Yurtopia backcountry ski hut in British Columbia

The M.U.P Files are the community corner of On the Horizon Line. These stories are written by our frie

nds and family who are exploring hometown horizons.  Why “M.U.P.?”  Because dispatches from the desks of our loved ones are like “magical unicorn ponies” that fly across the sea to greet us on distant shores.

Want to be a M.U.P.?  Join the party.  We can’t wait to hear your voice while we sail.


sailing to sunrise on the horizon line

Limitless Exploration

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Sailing, Videos

tyler bradt kayaking over waterfall on the horizon lineA fellow Montanan — and friend of our friends — Tyler Bradt is about to set sail across the Pacific on a similar voyage to our own.  Only difference is that he has a boat already, while we’re crewing on other people’s boats.  Oh, and also the fact that he has high-profile sponsors and partners 😉

Tyler is a famous whitewater kayaker and adventurer extraordinaire from Stevensville, Mont-ucky.  Check out his recent interview on the National Geographic Adventure Blog, and the video below that explains his newest adventure: sailing the world over the next 5 years.  Tyler’s answer to this question is almost exactly the same as ours would be:

Nat Geo. How did you pick your course? Are there places in particular that you are most eager to explore?

sailing to sunrise on the horizon line

T.B. This is the hardest part for people to grasp. We don’t have a course! The idea of this expedition is to let it take its own course. By having predetermined destinations and exact ideas of what we are going to do only limits us and what our experiences will be. The idea is to allow this journey to find its own flow, its own route, and what we do and where we do it will be determined by decisions we make in the right moment and not before. This will help keep the boat and crew safe and allow our explorations to be limitless.

Hope to catch up with you in Tahiti or beyond, Tyler.  It’d be a blast to sail on Wizard’s Eye and swap tales of Montana rivers while we cruise distant shores.

Bittersweet New Year’s Reflections

Posted on Leave a commentPosted in Family and Friends, Outdoor Adventures, Reflections on Life

ice on Highland houseIt’s 2013 today.  Christmas came and went, and so did the Winter Solstice.  The days are already getting longer and lighter, pulling Montana toward spring.

But the icicles on our back patio are still growing longer every day.

This juxtaposition of more light alongside more ice complements how I feel as the holidays come to a close.  My excitement grows every day about our upcoming spring-like lifestyle change.  But the sadness of leaving my family grows right alongside it.

The holidays magnified all of these bittersweet feelings associated with leaving.

The Willets and Cassidy on New Years Day
The Willets and Cassidy on New Years Day

Watching my dad don a Santa costume on Christmas Eve, while Rob played with 12 children in Bobby and Joellen’s house made me feel full to the brim.  Spending Christmas day with my parents, Cass and Rob (and Alta, the doggie) was low-key and easy here in Missoula … but extra-poignant, since I was trying to memorize everyone’s faces, comments, emotions.  And spending New Year’s Eve at Hogback Cabin (an old homestead on U.S. Forest Service land along the fabled Rock Creek) with Cass, Rob and a few friends was — as Kelley and Mike said best — the only place I’d want to be.

My favorite adventure buddy, and her sidekick, Alta
My favorite adventure buddy, and her sidekick, Alta

My sister, in particular, will be the hardest to leave.  I just read Cutting For Stone at the cabin, with its story of identical twins who felt like one person: “ShivaMarion.”  Even though we’re not identical, I sometimes feel like “BriCass” —  a meld that will be painfully hard to separate into two individuals.

As one of my friends recently told me, “There’s nothing like an impending departure to give everything you’re leaving a rosy glow.”  So true.  Right now, the winter days don’t seem as grey or cold, small arguments seem endearing, and I forget daily frustrations in favor of sweet reminisces.

We leave exactly 12 weeks from today.  That means only 10 more weeks of work.  And only a precious few weekends — hell, days, even! — to spend with my favorite people and in my favorite places before we sail off.

I felt a bit overwhelmed by that realization, and decided to strap on my cross-country skis to clear my head.  I always think better when I’m moving.

Me skiing from Hogback Cabin
Me skiing from Hogback Cabin

As I clicked into my skis across the street from our house and started gliding toward Rattlesnake Creek, I  reviewed images of the year that passed.  Weekends at cabins, vacation with Cass on Kauai, learning to backcountry snowboard in Canada, dancing on stage in bodypaint to my own choreography, sailing, backpacking, biking.  Countless dinners with friends and family.  Laughing.  Crying.  Laughing until I cried.  Getting married, and being a part of many of our best friends’ weddings, too.

A year to remember.  And be thankful for.  Knock on wood (lots of it).

But my thoughts quickly shifted to the year to come.  My brain slapped me upside the head, and said, “Why are you leaving these people and these places?”

Me and Rob climbing above Rock Creek
Me and Rob climbing above Rock Creek

My heart slapped back, saying, “To grow, and learn, and change.  To make more memories to share around campfires, dinner tables, and parties when we get back.  To let my family grow and change, too.”

The icicles aren’t going anywhere soon, that’s for sure.  And I’ll be writing more about the sadness of leaving.  Yet I also know one thing for certain from my years growing up in season-less Southern California: the ice makes the spring so very much sweeter.




A Man Spoke Tonight

Posted on 3 CommentsPosted in Community and Culture, Reflections on Life

A man spoke tonight about darkness.  He spoke of ancient creatures that chew on trees.  He spoke of crystalline-fragile ecosystems, and the waters that move and change.

He spoke of people who damage these waters and change the crystalline ecosystems.  He spoke of being a rancher’s son, a transient’s best friend, and of being a janitor.  He spoke of the dark waters and deep black skies that calm a troubled mind and that soothe a frantic soul.

He spoke in a front of a crowded room, full of people who disagreed with him.  He spoke as the sole voice of dissent for a burgeoning civic project to light our city’s bridges.

I cried when he spoke.  And the tears took me by surprise.

It wasn’t the bridge lighting project that sparked my emotion.  Nor was it simply the man’s poetic words that catalyzed salty tears.

Rather, it was his brave act of speaking out that prompted my emotional response.  It was the fact that he launched a different and heartfelt perspective into a sea of sameness.  It was the fact that I am fortunate enough to live in a city, a state, a nation that lets him speak out…and even encouraged it. It was the fact that a roomful of dissenters respectfully allowed him to speak freely, and asked for his opinion even when they knew it was uncomfortably different.

Thank you, Americans, Montanans, Missoulians, friends, for listening to others.  Thank you for welcoming stories of darkness, even as you seek the light.

And thank you to the man who spoke tonight, for reminding us that some people crave the solace of dark or troubled waters, and we might never fully understand why.

Stitching 2 Creeks Back Together Again

Posted on 2 CommentsPosted in Fishing

As a perfect follow-up to the “typical office day” video I shared earlier this week, here’s the front-page article in the Missoulian newspaper this morning.  It’s all about the job we finished, which reconnects two creeks.

It’ll be my last on-the-ground project before we take off to sail and explore for a couple of years.  Watch the video for an up-close look at how I rebuilt the stream.

80 years after it was diverted, Twin Creek steered back into Ninemile Creek

By ROB CHANEY of the Missoulian

NINEMILE – It took 58 minutes for Twin Creek to flow 400 feet and reconnect a waterway severed for the last 80 years.

“That’s pretty awesome,” David Pontrelli yelled as the first muddy cloud from Twin Creek’s new channel bloomed in the clear waters of Ninemile Creek.

On a freezing Friday morning, he saw the result of six weeks of earthmoving and landscape engineering repair a bit of family history.

“My grandpa was a miner up here in the ’30s,” Pontrelli said. “I’m working on some of the same projects he did, putting them back together. We’re making a positive impact, and I’m extremely proud to be a part of that.”

Shortly before World War II, gold miners patented a four-mile stretch of the Ninemile Creek bottom and started dredging the floodplain. Their machines scooped up the creek’s cobbles and gravel into berms 20 feet high, seeking a layer of clay where the valuable minerals hid. Ninemile Creek’s winding oxbows were shunted into a straight-line ditch.


Twin Creek flows into the Ninemile from the hills to the south. When it reached the dredging zone, the miners forced it into a ditch that eventually poured into a pond and percolated away.

“No one’s blaming the miners – they were trying to survive just like the rest of us,” said Trout Unlimited project manager Rob Roberts, who organized the work with cooperation from Missoula County, the Lolo National Forest and the University of Montana. “There’s a lot of debate about how much they found. I think they paid their way. Now we’re trying to create a new legacy for the valley, and return things to the way they were.”

Sort of. To connect the two creeks, Roberts’ crew had to rearrange 16,000 cubic yards of old dredge berm into a causeway across some of the mining channels. That put a pile roughly the size of a football field in a miner’s clearing, with the new creek running 20 feet above the old dredge channel on either side.

Pontrelli and his Streamside Services LLC coworkers hand-placed hundreds of rocks in a series of pools and cascades to mimic the natural contours of a creek. Then they scattered sand, gravel and clay in the bed and blasted the whole mix with water hoses. The goal was to armor the new streambed so water wouldn’t leak out before it reached Ninemile Creek.


Rock and River Co. partners Chance Kirby and Ray Trollope did most of the heavy lifting with their excavator and dump truck. In three weeks, they lifted and moved 1,600 dump-truck loads of fill. On Friday, Kirby got to pull the earthen plug that kept Twin Creek in its ditch. A single bucketful of dirt at 11:31 a.m. was all it took to send the stream tumbling into its new path.

A veteran of the Milltown Dam removal with a dozen years of streambed experience, Kirby used his huge power shovel to re-landscape the area around where Twin Creek used to run. While he transplanted loads of living plants into the old ditch, UM Wildland Restoration students Mark Fogarty and Mark Marano scrambled through the mud seeking stranded fish.

They returned with a 4-inch trout and a handful of minnows for the new channel. Roberts said a stranded population of westslope cutthroat existed in Twin Creek, and now will mingle with the fish in Ninemile Creek. Like first-time homebuyers in a new subdivision, Roberts said fish will flock to the new reach for a while.

Fogarty, Marano and classmate Danielle Berardi also put together a squad of 30 fellow students last weekend to plant thousands of trees and bushes along the new streambed.

Twin Creek was just one of a half-dozen tributaries to the Ninemile diverted for mining. The upper stretch of Ninemile Creek remains trapped in an unnatural channel.


Lolo National Forest soils and water program manager Traci Sylte said Twin Creek didn’t have any serious hazardous waste issues, although other mining-affected creeks higher in the drainage did.

“So far, we’ve done work on Little McCormick, Eustache, Mattie V, St. Louis, Twin, Kennedy and Josephine creeks,” Sylte said. “It’s been great that a lot of private folks have the ethic and desire to give us permission to do this.”

The Twin Creek project cost about $200,000. All combined, the Ninemile drainage streamwork has brought close to $1 million for area excavators, contractors, nurseries and laborers. And there’s been some unpaid labor involved as well.

Over the years, beavers have built ponds that backed up the water and flooded into parallel dredge channels, returning a bit of braiding to the waterway. But lots more work would be needed.

“The only problem is we don’t have enough money to do this for the entire four miles,” Roberts said. “It’s so disturbed in this area, we don’t even know where the floodplain was. It’s completely altered.”

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