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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Divers Only

When searching for the best dives of the coast of Bali, Tulamben kept showing up at the top of the list. Tulamben is a small coast where you will only find dive hotels, one or two shops, a couple of restaurants, and the closest ATM is 30 minute drive away. The only people are divers, snorkelers, there few friends afraid of the water, and the locals who work there. This is not you typical tourist area, and thankfully neither are the prices. I stayed in a dorm for 100,000 rupees about $11 a night, a dive only costed 250,000 rupees $30 and since it was the rainy season and not many people, I had my own private dive instructor for each of my dives.
My first dive has a history which started in 1942 , when the U.S.S. Liberty was struck by a torpedo from a Japanese submarine. Two US destroyers attempted to accompany the damaged boat to a port in Singaraja, Bali, but when it became clear that the boat was taking on too much water, it was intentionally grounded on the shores of tiny Tulamben where the military was able to salvage the cargo. The ship sat grounded for 21 years until neighboring Mt. Agung erupted in 1963, which pushed the boat into deeper water just offshore creating one of the world’s most rewarding wreck shore dives for me to explore.

As soon as you submerge the Liberty is waiting for you, a dark looming site until you are closest enough to see it come alive. The hull of the wreck was a tasty feast for my eyes, decorated with hard and soft corals as well as some stunningly colored feather stars and neon sponges. The site is also teeming with large schools of fish including the bumphead parrotfish, oriental sweetlips, a massive school (500+) of swirling jacks so close you could touch. Amongst the the few items of the ship that one still can make out such as ladders, holes for windows, and large deck gun, I saw Surgeon fish, giant trevallies, batfish, insanely huge grouper, Napoleon wrasse and a pregnant porcupine fish. After my instructor saw my diving abilities she took me on the coolest part of the dive the fun swim-throughs, where we entered the stern of the boat swam vertical turned up toward the sun and enjoyed looking through the port holes. My swimming was not pretty or controlled as my instructor but I made it without doing any damage to me or the boat.
Even after my first wreck dive, I still prefer dives where bright colors are the main features and the next day that is what I got when I dived "Coral Garden" with my instructor Ben from France. After making it down the dirt path with all our gear on, we arrived to the black stone beach were I was thankful to have booties on to navigate. Then we waded into the water where I enflated my BC and put on my flippers. As soon as I rolled over and put my mask in the water I saw the beginnings of a delightfully rich little patch reef, dominated by hard coral, including some large table and fire corals, interspersed with anemones and sponges.

Prior to the dive Ben said we might see some sharks depending on the visibility, so I was thrilled when he pointed to a blur object and did the hand signal for shark. He then had me sit with him on the bottom of the ocean floor and wait. Soon he nudged me and pointed to my right about 10 feet away were the two black tip reef sharks swimming side by side another about 12 feet behind, we sat there and silently watched while they swam circles around us. It was quite peaceful until I noticed the barracuda the length of my leg deadly still with it' jagged teeth. For some reason they freak me out, not enough to surface but enough to put some distance between us. The other under water creatures that creep me out are moray eels with there long slithering bodies, cloudy beady eyes, and lazy months. Thankfully since they cannot see real well they mostly just barely stick their head out from behind a rock and snap there mouth shut when is something close, this meant if I kept enough distance, a foot or so, I could examine these weird creatures and not be bothered. During this dive I did find there is one kind of these creatures that I found that I actually enjoy and is a rarity, blue ribbon eels. There named describe theme to a t except the fact that the ribbon of there blue body has an edge of yellow.

As we followed the sandy slope down and I practiced swimming with out my arms in order to save energy and air Ben showed me the home of a spiny lobster and peacock mantis shrimp, three giant rock fish camouflaged on the bottom between two hard coral bushes, and bright blue sea cucumber. In addition to the thousands of common reef fish including blue striped snappers, angelfish, wrasse, parrotfish, and a couple two spot lionfish. When our dive was finished and we reached the surface Ben and my smile said it all. His even more so because even after hundreds of dives he was still excited by what we saw.

Location:Tulamben, Bali, Indonesia

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Homesick for Christmas

Five years ago an almost nonexistent Christmas would have been the ideal Christmas. At the time I was half Grinch. I could deal with the decorations, the lights, the trees, the music, but my family and the presents drove me bonkers. What to buy, how much to spend, how to send it home? And then thinking what is the point because 9 times out of 1o we were exchanging gift cards, people were getting mad because they didn't get what they want or they got some crap that we only be rewrapped next year for some unfortunate soul. Then one Christmas it all changed, I found my heart growing three sizes. My family was fun to be around and buying presents online while drinking baileys and hot chocolate with Christmas movies in the background was a new tradition that I could enjoy.

Still, this year I made the decision to be away from home for my 1st Christmas ever. I knew it would be hard, but years worth of dreams made it worth the sacrifice, and Asia bless her made it a lot easier until today.

The majority of Asian countries are Hindu and Buddhist, so Christmas spirit it only a whisper. An occasional sign for a Christmas buffet dinner, a single strand of lights on my neighbors porch and no where else, a Christmas tune or two played at the local mall to hopefully get us "farangs" to buy more, but other than that it was nonexistent until I turned on my computer. The Facebook status updates started to slowly mention people holiday plans, the baking of holiday treats, and the anticipation of being home. Finally, The reality of missing all the traditions set it. I would miss finger painting cutout cookies with my cousins and their kids, building a snowman with my Aunt Tera, Big Night on Ice, the ghetto Precious Moments, the handmade stocking with my name stitched on it from my childhood being filled to the brim, the trading of sexy underwear with my Aunt Ginger, exchanging gifts with the San Diego girls, and so much more.

Today and tomorrow I will miss my home more than any other time on my trip, but I now know what I'm missing and will try my best to plan better so I never have to experience it again. However, this Christmas i will never forget with 75 degree weather in Phuket, enjoying Christmas breakfast with the neighbors with tropical fruit sangria and building a sand snowman on the crystal blue beach.
Merry Christmas!

Location:Mueang Phuket,Thailand

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Monkey Mayhem in Bali

About a 15 minute walk from my home stay in the center of Ubud is the Sacred Monkey Forest of Padangtegal, where over 340 hundred Balinese long tailed macaques monkeying call home. According to the brochure, there are approximately 32 adult males, 19 male sub adult, 77 adult females, 122 juvenile and 54 infants that inhabit that belong to 4 distinct troops. Before you even pay the Rp. 20.000 or US$2 to enter the forest there are monkeys waiting for you, 20 plus statues line the street and depending what time of day it is there maybe macaques wandering around gorging themselves.

I thought with the 1,ooo's of visitors feeding them every day they would never go outside there forest to scavenge, but one late night on my walk past the forest at least 5 monkeys were gorging them on the leftover street food, maybe they are greedy or just want something different then there usual fair. Seeing this I could only imagine the antics I would see when I actually entered the depths of some of the lushest green forests that Bali is famous for.

The first monkey that greeted me kindly showed me where the toilet was, but I declined and wandered further in. Everywhere you looked there were macaques, who all seemed well accustomed to humans.

Some even climbed up and sat on peoples shoulder in return for a treat or to clean their hair like one of their own. I personally had no monkeys using me as a jungle gym because I didn't want to spend money on overpriced bananas or finding out if I was allergic or when there was no one patient enough there to take of picture of it just in case I was. I'll save the possible rash until next time.

On the other hand I did have one feisty macaque grab on to my bright red WiLDCOAST water bottle and try to tear it lose, but never fear my carabinieri held tight until the little rascal got sick of dancing in circles with me. I was one of the fortunate souls that did not lose anything that day, I did watch one mischievous macaque take off with one tourist Ray Band sunglasses, and another a bottle of water which the little guy quickly unscrewed the cap and drank to all of our amazement.

When not watching and photographing these crazy creatures I was enjoying the beautiful ancient tombs, sculptures, temples interspersed between trails and the all consuming greenery. Mandala Wisata Wenara Wana as the locals call the Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary is a wonderful place, I only wish the next time I go one of my best friends, Sara Martinez, is there with me to tell me more about the monkeys and take my picture with them just not around me.

Location:Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Sailing Into Paradise in Phuket

From December 6th through December 10th I felt like I was the luckiest sailor in the world, I was apart of the 25th Anniversary Phuket King's Cup Regatta, which is touted to be the premier sailing event of the Eastern Hemisphere.

It all started in 1991, when Jenny Dahms and I signed up for resident camp, where we would be learning sailing because my body couldn't handle the other options Girlscout Camp had to offer. I had to use a nebulizer, breathing machine, three times a day for I had really bad asthma induced by allergies. Thankfully, Jenny was patient and kind enough to be with that kid at camp. This was my first introduction to sailing and when I fell in love. Until we were "too old" for camp, Jenny and I would return year after year to have our week on the water.

Sadly, it would be 13 years until I would return to the sailing world in San Diego, California and meet Captian Mike Rafferty, a local middle school science teacher who taught sailing on the weekends for community college where my roommate Sara was taking classes. She told our other roommate, Jill, and I about her colleges hidden treasure, three months of Sunday sailing for only $30! It was such a steal that Jill and I quickly signed up and became some of Mike's favorite students, even though I stunk and still do at the terminology. My favorite classes were when I could take out a Laser (dinghy) by myself. I wouldn't have any one shouting at me words I couldn't remember and had the freedom to go as fast as I want, since the lean and tipping the boat scares a lot of people. Where as I love speed to much and therefore, I tipped the boat almost every other class but half of the fun was flipping it back over and pulling myself in the boat. Mike didn't seem to care because I never asked for help or wrecked a boat. I loved the wind, water, and the trill of it all.

Those days had to come to end, when Mike decided to retire and sail across the Pacific. He asked a few other students to join him for the first leg, which was the Baja Ha-Ha cruisers rally from San Diego to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. The timing sucked for me because I had final projects due in my master's program and Big Brothers Big Sisters Golf Marathon fundraiser, I needed to be ready for the next week. When Mike sailed into the sunset I never knew if I would see him again or not, but before left he made a huge mistake and told me I was always welcome on his boat.

In 2011, I called in that offer, but different circumstances awaited me. Mike had lost his boat and home of 15 years off the coast of Australia and was now living on land in Phuket, Thailand. I could not stay on his boat with him since it now longer existed, but I could stay with him in Nai Harn and he would try a place for me to crew in the annual King's Cup Regatta. The first few days of the regatta, I only watched while Mike helped crew his friends, Bill's boat. Mike told the other crew members about me, and slowly they worked on Bill to let me join them. The final push was paying 1000 baht ($30, but includes food and drinks) for an after race party where the crew would ask him again in front of him. I was nervous because, I hadn't been on a sailboat in over 2 year, never had crewed this size boat and yet alone in a race, but with Mikes confidence in me I could't pass up this amazing opportunity.

The next day, I woke up 6:30 poped some Dramamine in my mouth, just in case, and got myself stoked. As soon as I saw all the other crews lining up for the long tails to take them to their boat, I knew I was in for something good. The first day it wasn't as good as I hoped it would have been since we started on the wrong course and ended up in 4th. I did learn a lot, and Nick, our captain for the race, gave me his ticket to the party that night since he couldn't make it. My 2nd race day was 10 times better. I had the special job of sitting blow deck until the race course numbers were called out, so we didn't mess up again. Then I had to help count down the start time, and we were the first out of the gate beating out our fiercest competition Odin and Linda. They passed us, and then the wind died. Inside I secretly worried about not doing so well again, however the rest of the crew appeared calm. As the race came to a close they explained to me why, out boat was handicapped 10 minutes for every hour compared to Linda and Odin, which would be reflected on the posted race time. I now understood that pretty much no matter what we did Odin and Linda would always cross the finish line first, however it didn't guarantee that they had beaten us. In fact that day we came in 1st in our class and I got to drive Astraeus into the bay. The next day was even more exciting; it was the last day of the regatta and all the boats would be on the same course. This is not ideal conditions since you have a ton more boats to watch out for, but more me it also meant I could watch them all day. The wind was great and we averaged five knots. Sadly it didn't matter since the wind was flat where we started, a few bad tacks, a stuck halyard, and a Spinnaker that got away from us. We took 4th. I didn't really care, I had a great day and was hooked.

The real icing on the cake came at the closing party, when we learned we took 2nd overall in the cruising class!

Special thanks to William Sax the skipper of Astraeus for letting me crew a regatta for the first but not the last time, Captain Nick for being so patient with me and answering all my questions in his beautiful South African accent, Rita and Steven Johnson for being so warm, welcoming and down right wonderful to me, and most importantly a huge thanks to Michael Rafferty sailing instructor and friend for making one of my dreams come true in such a large way.

Location:Kata Beach, Phuket, Thailand

Sunday, December 4, 2011

A Part of Their World - Diving in Phuket

I became SCUBA certified on July 25, 2010, my 29th birthday, with one of my best friends Sara.  It was something that both of us had wanted to do, but never took the next step, well until Sara had to be certified to move up the ladder at SeaWorld.  We both finally we both had the push we needed, for Sara her job and for me, Sara.  Our first ocean dive was off the coast of San Diego at La Jolla Shores.  We wore six inch wetsuits with hoods and booties that made us look and walk like penguins on land, but we once we hit the cold water a whole new world opened for us.  It was here that I learned that sand dollars are actually purple when they are alive, they also are huge underwater fields of them that I tried hard to crush with my hands as I was learn to control my buoyancy with my breath.  Sadly, it took me a year and half to strap on tank and jump back in. 

This time, I was still diving with three San Diegians, Erin and Juan Lau, and Captain Mike Rafferty, but we were wearing only half wet suits and diving two hours off the coast of Phuket, Thailand.  As I readied my gear, I became nervous but thankfully a new friend on the boat told me not to worry, for it was like riding a bike and it would all come back to me. 

Our first dive was Dok Bida Nay, a three star dive site south of Dok Phi Phi Ley.  I jumped in and silently descended 2 meters, 7 meters, 10 meters my ears screaming in pain.  I tried to release the pressure by holding my nose and pushing air up to my air canals, it would work but the pressure would come again, and again, again.  I kept thinking was it worth it, then a few minutes later I saw what I had only seen on video.  My head cleared, my breathing became normal, and my ears finally quieted.  I was floating/swimming in paradise.  There was a large reef to my right and beneath me, in every nook and cranny were soft corals, gorgonian sea fans, black corals, long stringy sea whips, huge gardens of stag horn, star corals, sea cucumbers and incredible number of reef animals. There were varying sizes and species of colorful Parrotfish and Wrasse, along with large shoals of Moorish Idols, and my favorite starfish.  The starfish seemed to be every color of the rainbow blue, yellow, pink, with 4 arms, 5 arms, 6 arms, and every where.  We also saw my not so favorite ocean creatures a black and white banded sea snake who has more poison than a cobra and with one bite can kill you in 5 seconds, and an ugly moray (eel) sticking its gray green head out of cave, who I have had a such a strong dislike for since I saw Little Mermaid when I was nine. 

The second dive site, Dok Bida Nok, showed me another side of the Little Mermaid when our dive master Fumiko led us into an underwater sea cave.  We swam in guided by her tiny flashlight with only a foot of visibility, I did not know what to expect. Then she motioned for me to look up, when I did sunlight streamed down through a small opening and sparkled off through the layers of water on the way down to me.  I smiled, twirled the best I could and sang “Apart of Their World” to myself, but as I did I thought of the opposite, instead of walking on earth I was thinking of how amazing it was to be swimming in the ocean surrounded by all manner of marine life frolicking among the soft corals and sponges.  We sighted delightful butterfly fish, pipefish, trumpet fish, puffer fish and lionfish.

Our last dive was the reef next to the imposing limestone structure known as Koh Dok Mai, Flower Island in the native tongue.  Where its steep cliffs extend well below the surface to the sand.  It was an ideal drift dive and a great time to practice not using my arms to navigate.  A true diver lightly grasps their hands together and occasionally uses their flippers to navigate.  When my mind and eyes drifted to the nearby array of colorful tube corals, and to the multitude of cracks and crevices along the wall where I saw durban dancing shrimps, cleaner shrimps, plus many species of grouper including the blue lined, coral and marbled.  The best spotting being a small shark hidden in a fist sized hole in the wall. 
All in all it was a great day, and I can only hope I will be “Apart of Their World” for not too much money again, soon!

In case you ever find yourself in Phuket we used by Sea World Dive Team and it cost us 3,800 baht. It included all our equipment, breakfast, lunch, transportation, and the three dives I described above.  There were five of us to one dive master. 

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Armchair Journey Review - On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac is the "beat generation's" story teller and is my kind of writer because he writes as he speaks instead of following the "rules". He has written many books, articles, etc including "On the Road". It is a novel that makes me want to go out there, seize the day, and let the road take me by the hand, well without the drugs.

Kerouac tells introduces the reader to Sal Paradise, one of his alter-egos, a young and seemingly innocent writer who is holed up in a room at his aunt's house, until he is inspired by Dean Moriarty (a character based on Kerouac's friend Neal Cassady) a crazy youth "tremendously excited with life" racing around America. From the moment their journeys begins I was is taken through the highs and lows of hitchhiking, bonding with fellow explorers, opting for beer before food, and exploring the rural wilderness, sleepy small towns, urban jungles, endless deserts- all linked by the road, the outlet for a generation's desire and inner need to get out. Kerouac made me feel their desperation and the lack of fulfillment which made them believe that "the only thing to do was go", in order to find their personal freedom in sex, drugs, and jazz.

I am sad to know that this book is one of very few entries into the world of the beat generation, but it did put the dream of hitting the road into head and look where I am at now.

Highly Recommended. (I have read 3 times as of March 2011)

Armchair Journeys an Introduction

My dad always says getting asthma was one of the best things that ever happened to me. This may sound rude or mean to someone that does not know my family, but I full heartedly agree with him. Not being able to breathe well, led me to use a nebulizer (loud breathing machine) three times a day for two or three years; this sure didn't make me the cool kid at school or camp, but it got me reading!

After my asthma became controlled and almost nonexistent I continued to read, and it has continued to shape my life. From libraries, to book stores, to my friends book shelves, under my mom's bed, and free books at guesthouses, I have found a source of new worlds and pleasures. But the best place to curl up with a good book will always be my parents old beat up armchair that I refuse to let them throw away and why i entitled this post "armchair journeys" and all subsequent posts where I review books for your knowledge and my own memory will also be called "Armchair Journeys."

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