Posted by: passedportsnyc | June 13, 2010

I Smell Yak Butter!

Lhasa can be a magical place.  You may read elsewhere that it has lost it’s soul, that it has sold out to Beijing, that you cannot find the “real” Tibet here.  Don’t believe everything that you read. The reality is that there are two Lhasas.  One has all the makings of a thoroughly modern Chinese city: wide, clean streets; glassy buildings; large public squares adorned with massive TV screens and statues; Nike stores and other bastions of 21st century global consumer culture; man-made lakes complete with kiddie paddle boats.  The other, the pedestrian-only Tibetan quarter, is steeped in tradition: narrow, winding alleyways; temples, prayer wheels and stupas; tiny shops making yak wool or noodles or prayer flags by hand; kids crouched on the pavement playing makeshift games with found stones.

Lhasa Old Quarter

Since the moment we arrived in Tibet 4 days ago I have felt utterly mesmerized.  The impossibly harsh, jagged, and seemingly lifeless peaks that dominate the landscape are punctuated with valleys filled with technicolor fields of wildflowers and wide mountain streams that perfectly reflect the sky not so far above.  The colorful traditional buildings and colorful local dress are all the more alluring against the bleak, rugged landscape.

(Regarding the sky being not so far above, as it turns out, we weren’t exactly cut out for life above 12,000 feet.  The altitude has been a force to be reckoned with.  The first day, even with a low-dose prophylaxis prescription for Diamox, we were practically incapacitated.  As we strolled through town, little tiny old ladies hobbling along with canes blew by us.  We huffed and puffed and wheezed and had to return to the hotel for a nap.  I have a whole new respect for people who do crazy things like climb Kilimanjaro, or Everest, or really anything in the Himalayas.  Happily it is getting better by the day, but tomorrow we will head farther afield, and farther up, as we make our way toward Everest Base Camp.  Hopefully we can handle life at 5,000 meters, if only for a day.)

Perhaps the most captivating part of this city is the Barkhor – the swell of humanity that circumambulates the central Jokhang Temple, every day from dawn until dusk (which isn’t until about 9:30 since all of China is on Beijing time).  All day long Lhasan Tibetans and Tibetan pilgrims in traditional dress from hundreds – even thousands – of miles away make the clockwise circuit, many of them spinning prayer wheels, making yak butter offerings, or prostrating themselves along the way.   (Yak butter, by the way, emits an absolutely nauseating smell – any time there is too much of it in a temple I must make an early exit, or I risk vomiting all over Buddha.)  Their dress depends on their home region, but usually involves some incarnation of belted woollen coats or robes, colorful aprons from the women, and all manner of headdress, from simple braids woven with string to ornate hats decorated with colorful stones.

This woman in traditional Tibetan dress was near the Barkhor, bartering with several others over large packages of (knockoff?) Northface goods from the factory

Yesterday we went to the Sera monastery, where we watched the monks debate.  I would have done anything in the world to have a real time translation of those arguments.  Debates about esoteric topics of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy occur daily and are an integral part of study for the monks at Sera.  If you ever thought monks were supposed to be soft spoken and austere, think again.  These guys are incredibly loud and animated, jumping around, clapping loudly, swatting prayer beads around.  Supposedly each action has a specific symbolic meaning, for example, a clap after each question is asked, but even without a full understanding, it was great fun to watch.

A vehement arguer...

Our guesthouse is a friendly, quiet place in the Muslim quarter.  There are a bunch of monks staying (living?) here as well, which I think is swell.  Perhaps the most unexpected part of our Tibet experience so far is what we found on the bedside table: a brochure about HIV/AIDS prevention in Tibetan, and a pack of condoms – a first in all of the hotels we’ve stayed in over the course of the year.  Glad that the monks and the Buddhists are learning about safe sex.  Now let’s see if we can export this idea to Africa…

HIV/AIDS education, complements of the hotel

Tomorrow it’s onward and upward, as we make our way toward the top of the world.

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Posted by: passedportsnyc | June 5, 2010

Hungry Fish

The first time I passed by a “fish spa” in Bangkok a few months ago, I almost vomited in the street.  Fish spas, offering treatments variously referred to as both fish pedicures and fish massages, are all over South East Asia.  Basically, you stick your feet into a fish tank full of small fish that remind me of the plecostomus fish we had in our tank when I was little (except less suction-y), and let them nibble away at your dead skin, leaving your feet soft and smooth.  I found the whole idea repulsive.

My mother, however, was totally into it.  The entire time she was here, she talked about doing it, but had some reservations concerning hygiene.  (I still have some reservations concerning hygiene…)  Finally, on the last night she took the plunge in Koh Samui.

passedports, on Flickr”>Fish Pedicure

The fish went crazy for her feet.  I sort of though the whole thing was a gimic, but in the end, her feet were in fact much softer and smoother than before.  In my opinion there are still better ways to treat the dead skin on your feet than to let a bunch of fish chow down on them, but it did make for a good photo op.

Posted by: passedportsnyc | May 21, 2010

Sailing Misadventures in An Thong Marine National Park

Ang Thong Marine National Park is composed of more than 40 small islands, most made of stunningly rugged limestone karst, and mostly uninhabited.  I had been wanting to visit Ang Thong ever since we arrived in Thailand’s gulf coast.  But, the only way to get there was to take a day trip on a cheesy overcrowded group tour boat, or to pay an exorbitant fee for a private charter.  Neither option appealed.

beach at Ang Thong

And then my parents came to visit, offering up a third way.  My parents are huge sailors. (Well, perhaps more accurately, my dad is a huge sailor and my mom is a good sport.)  They keep their own boat and charter it out to others not too far from their Florida home.  As it happens, the same company that takes care of their boat back home, has operations here in Thailand.  They were lucky enough to be able to swap boat time, making their time in Thailand – with no hotel to pay for – relatively affordable and a little slice of something different.

So, after months of anticipation of Asian sailing adventures, mom and dad finally arrived in Koh Samui.  The daytime temperature in the week leading up to my parents’ arrival had been between 35 and 39C (95-102F), and very humid.  Nights were only dropping to about 31C.  Not comfortable sailing weather, not by a long shot.  May is known to be one of Thailand’s hottest months, but several locals told me it was the hottest they’s seen it in 15 years or more.  One blamed it on El Nino, another on the lack of rain, but whatever the cause, the heat was oppressive.  And with the water temperature here in the Gulf of Thailand clocking in between 31 and 32 C (88-90F), not even a dip in the ocean is refreshing.

So it was in that heat that we set off.  The ocean was a sheet of glass, without even the slightest touch of breeze to stir it.   I’ve never seen such a vast, unprotected body of water so perfectly still.  The first day, for want of wind, we had to motor all the way out to the park.  Basically, we had to motor everywhere, every day.

We did get to see some adorable spectacle monkeys on one of the islands, and we had the distinct privilege of puttering around amongst the close-set islands and beaches after the day trippers had gone home.  Having 60-some-odd islands all to yourself is pretty cool.  Ang Thong may be one of the few places left in Thailand, or maybe even the world, where you can still find a perfectly deserted beach – provided you have your own transportation.

Ang Thong Spectacle Monkey

We were quite disappointed by the pollution.  As is the case around many of Thailand’s islands and beaches, tourism is taking a visible toll on the environment.  We saw several tour boats dropping large amounts of waste into the sea, we watched a disturbing number of plastic bottles drift by our boat, and all of the beaches visited by tour boats, or in the path of a tour boat, were littered with trash from processed food and soda.

At night it was too hot to even consider going down to sleep in the cabin.  We splayed ourselves across the deck hoping for the slightest breeze, or even a bit of rain, to cool us down.  No luck.

Back home, as a kid, summer weekends often meant sleeping on our boat.  This was kind of like camping, but on the water.  We had to relieve ourselves in the glamorous “marine toilet” also known as the “head,” and we cooked dinner under the stars on a small portable grill we attached to the back of the boat.  This time around, before we even set out, it was unanimously decided that it was far too hot to cook on the boat.

In the park, the island with the park office where you pay your fee also has a small restaurant.  It is run by the same large extended family that runs the park office and the handful of basic bungalows and tents for staying overnight in the park.  I had high hopes for a good traditional home cooked Thai meal.  The food was… salty.  Very, very, very salty.  Mediocre at best.  And that is a very generous review.  I have rarely been disappointed by food in Thailand – it is one of many things this country does just right.  Not in Ang Thong.  Our second night in the park, we opted for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on the boat instead.  Yep, that bad.

On day three we motored back to the sailing base on Koh Samui, and on day four we turned the boat in… six days ahead of schedule.  We were supposed to spend another day in the park, then head up and sail around Koh Tao and Koh Phangan for a few days.  All I can say is that I’m glad we didn’t have to pay for the boat, otherwise we surely would have suffered through the whole ten days.  Instead, we went back to our Koh Tao bungalow, checked my parents into a hotel, and cooled off in the pool for the rest of the week.

I maintain that the best way to explore Ang Thong is by your own transport.  And I do think it could be a lot of fun.  Just try to go at a different time of year, when the temperature is a bit more moderate, the winds a bit more consistent.  It will be immensely more pleasurable that way.  Just don’t go in May, especially in an El Nino year.

Posted by: passedportsnyc | May 6, 2010

Dog for a Day

**Warning: graphic photo below (but some cute ones too)**

This tale of Koh Tao’s dogs begins long ago and far away, on a day way back in September when I was teaching primary school English and secondary school history in Malawi. A stray dog followed me all the way from our guesthouse to the school – about a 25 minute walk.  He was one of several local strays that had taken a liking to us and followed us around all the time.  The feeling was not reciprocated.  Large tufts of fur were missing from his mangy body, replaced by dried scabs and oozing sores.  One eye appeared to be damaged beyond repair and was in the process of sealing itself shut.  His whole body appeared to be rotting.  You could smell him coming from 100 yards away. I tried to lose him but to no avail.  As he followed me right into the building (which had no doors to keep such critters out), the kids, a rowdy bunch of 8-year-olds who had been eagerly awaiting my arrival just outside, started freaking out.  They shrieked and climbed on desks and tried to push him out without actually touching him, using long sticks and benches to prod him toward the door.  Despite their efforts he made his way into the classroom.   It took well over half the period to calm their frantic remarks about his foul smell and offensive sores, and to conquer my own gag reflex.

It was about that time that I really began to take note of dog populations as we traveled.  I had been doing so somewhat unconsciously before that, as I had been vaguely annoyed, and at times grossed out, by local dog populations in Egypt and Tanzania.  But they fared worse in Malawi.  Or perhaps I just got to know them better, I’m not sure.

The health, wellbeing, and ownership status of local dog populations can provide an interesting window into the health, wellbeing, and culture of local communities.  In Malawi, for example, there seems to be very few family owned dogs, and loads of unhealthy strays.  This perhaps is hardly surprising for a place in which most people can barely afford to feed their own families.  In a place where things like food and medical care were precious commodities, children seemed trained to understand that dogs could make you sick, and to give them food was wasteful.  In Laos and northern Vietnam, you saw almost no dogs, owned or stray, anywhere at all.  I don’t know that the lack of dogs on the street was in any way related to the presence of dogs in the market, but it is not beyond the realm of possibility that there is a connection there…

Dog meat, a market in Laos

So after Malawi I began making note of local dog populations.  Nowhere has the dog population been so amazing as here in Koh Tao.  The island, relatively small at only 21 square kilometers, is home to about 700 dogs.  Nearly half of these are so-called “community dogs.”  Community dogs have no official owner, but they are not strays – they are recognized and accepted by the local population (Thai and ex-pat alike), and local shops, restaurants, and families often pitch in to feed and care for them.  Their happy presence has a tangible impact on the island’s culture, community and atmosphere.  Some of Koh Tao’s community dogs:

Dogs of Koh Tao

Dogs of Koh Tao

Dogs of Koh Tao

Community dogs playfully roam the beach, romping in the ocean, digging in the sand, and adopting willing tourists as owners-for-the-day.  So basically, any time you go to the beach, you can easily find yourself a dog-for-the-day, if you so desire. I think that’s just swell.

Our Dog-for-the-Day Today

The dogs are generally healthy, happy, and well-fed.  In fact, Koh Tao is one of the first places we’ve been where we haven’t been afraid to go near dogs because of mange, maggots, fleas, rabies, and other canine unpleasantries.  Thanks to the ongoing work of the fantastic Noistar Koh Tao Animal Clinic, virtually all of them have had their shots, and many have been sterilized. (Though many people think it cruel, it is an important precaution in order to keep the dog population in check on such a small island.)  The clinic, founded in 2004 has conducted an in-depth survey on the population and wellness of Koh Tao’s dogs, and uses the data to maintain a campaign that keeps the dogs healthy and vaccinated, and keeps the dog population in check.  They rely heavily on volunteers and donations – a worthy cause, both for the dogs and the ongoing health of the island.

Posted by: passedportsnyc | May 3, 2010

Close Encounters of the Jaws Kind

Sitting at dinner last night, the guy at the next table was recounting his recent bull shark encounter.  Here on Koh Tao, tales of shark encounters abound.  Everyone talks about that amazing dive that one time when they came face to face with a bull shark or swam alongside a 5m whale shark.  However, as you come to find out after doing a number of dives here, those tales are the rare exception rather than the rule. (That said the diving is still beautiful and well worth it.  Just don’t go expecting to see sharks.)

The one place around the island where anyone – divers and nondivers alike – is allegedly almost guaranteed a shark siting is Thian Og Bay, also known as Shark Bay.  (Ironically, the nearby Shark Island, a popular dive site, is generally devoid of sharks.)  So, one day not so long ago, seeking a cheap thrill we headed down to the south side of the island for a snorkel.  Thian Og is known for its reef sharks, friendly, passive fellows who like shallow water and, go figure, coral reefs.  I had heard they were quite small, so wasn’t expecting much.

The bay itself is quite large, has a mostly coral-covered bottom and remains shallow very far out.  We swam around for a while but had no luck. From the sounds of it, nearby snorkelers hadn’t glimpsed a mini-Jaws either.  A local had told me a few days earlier that all of the reef sharks had “gone away on summer vacation,” so I wasn’t too surprised.  The water was quite silty that day, so the visibility wasn’t very good, but we saw loads of beautiful tropical fish nonetheless; the excursion wasn’t in vain.  After about an hour we started to head back to shore but at the last minute I decided to turn back out for a little more.  I just can’t ever get enough of swimming in the ocean.

I headed way out into the middle of the bay, my body nearly skimming the plant life in the shallow water as I swam.  I was casually watching a parrot fish peck at the reef in search of lunch, when I caught a sharp movement to the left in my peripheral vision.  I glanced to the side, and coming out of the murky water, straight toward my head, was a massive shark.  Ok, ok,  so maybe massive isn’t the right word.  But I had been expecting skinny little guys not more than 2 or 3 feet long.  This guy was about 5 feet long (just about as long as me!) and much thicker than I through the middle.  I don’t feel like I’m exaggerating when I say he was really, really big, especially in such shallow water and at such close range.  He could have been the twin brother of this guy:

blacktip reef shark

The visibility was so poor that by the time he came into view he was only about 6-8 feet away from me.  He seemed to see me through the cloudy water at the exact same moment I saw him.  We locked eyes for a moment – I swear! – I banked right, he banked left with incredible graceful speed, and we both swam like hell to get away from each other.  I beelined across the bay, heart racing, praying I would run into another. Cheap thrill it was.

I’ve seen sharks at somewhat close range before while diving – reef sharks, nurse sharks, hammerheads – but they aren’t usually quite that close.  And there’s something about wearing a wetsuit and a large metal tank on your back that makes you feel invincible.  Rationally, I knew I had nothing to be afraid of, but in just a bikini and a snorkel, without even fins, I suddenly found myself feeling surprisingly vulnerable…

If you go: The entire beach in Thian Og is occupied by the low-key but luxe Haad Tien Beach Resort.  Day visitors are allowed to use the beach.  You can reach it by motorbike from a turnoff of the road to Chalok Ban Kao, but if you’re a wimp like me, you may want to park at the end of the paved road and walk from there (about 20 minutes).  The easier way to go, if all you want to do is snorkel and don’t need a beach, is take the road to Chalok Ban Kao past that beach and all the way to the end to OK View Bungalows.  The rocky coastline there has several swimming ladders into the bay.

Posted by: passedportsnyc | April 29, 2010

At Home in New York

Two weeks ago I went home to New York.  When we left last July, going home before the end of a year was not in the plans.  But alas, real-life responsibilities were piling up and could be ignored no longer; so, I grudgingly scheduled a quick (and shockingly expensive) trip to New York.

My first day back, after roughly 40 hours of travel on six different modes of transportation, I met a friend for lunch near City Hall.  I’ve never spent much time in lower Manhattan, which added to my sense of being an outsider.  I felt, for a few hours, like I was seeing New York for the first time.

The first thing that struck me was the physical darkness of the city.  Sure, the cliché New Yorker is always dressed in black, but I when I lived there I never thought that was actually true.  But the pedestrian population at lunchtime near City Hall had a definite darkness to it.  As I waited for my friend, I surveyed passersby. Dozens of people passed before I saw a single shred of color besides black, gray, brown and tan tones.  All those darkly dressed people, walking on black asphalt, against gray high rises on that gloomy April day was almost comical.  Suddenly the nickname “Gotham” felt just right.

The second thing that I struck me was that people are not, contrary to popular belief, rude.  Not in the slightest.  In fact, most of them are exceptionally polite.  What they are, however – and what is, I think, mistaken by many as rudeness – is busy.  So busy you almost feel sorry for them. So busy that you wish Brita would start putting Valium in their filters.  Everyone is on a mission, all the time.  They still make sure to hold the door for the person behind them and to say excuse me when they bump into someone.  But you would be hard pressed to find someone unbusy enough to engage in a casual conversation with a stranger.

In the same vein, everyone seems to be going about daily life with an extreme sense of deliberateness and self-importance.  The swag of every person on the street would have you believe that what they are doing is absolutely critical to the immediate survival of the planet.  Don’t get me wrong, I still love New York, but the attitude struck me as a little much.

Despite my jam-packed schedule of responsibility, I did find some time to catch up with friends and visit some sorely missed spots, mostly to get a fix of some of my favorite foods (you may noticed that cuisine involving cheese is featured prominently – it’s not something you find a lot of in Asia).  Among them: Patsy’s for a slice of New York goodness; Pequena, a contender for Brooklyn’s best Mexican fare (in my book it’s in a dead heat with Bonita, but someone told me that closed?!?); Westville in the West Village for fantastic American comfort food; Benny’s – $3 margaritas and quesadillas that can feed a family of 5 make for a refreshingly cheap night in a city of bottomless pockets; Osaka for my favorite sushi that doesn’t require a trust fund to pay the bill; Bierkraft for yummy under the radar brews you can’t find elsewhere (a delightful change from Thailand’s notorious Chang and it’s accompanying Changover); and The Strand bookstore – the ultimate cure for the garbage found on South East Asia’s mediocre book exchanges.  I also visited the newly opened Stumptown Coffee for a good cup of Joe (which has been disturbingly difficult to come by in many of the places we’ve visited).  I fell in love with Stumptown when I visited a friend out in Portland, OR a while back, and was SO excited when I heard they were finally coming to NYC.

I found an unexpected highlight of the week in the space between errands.  I was running around to job interviews at schools all over the city, many in neighborhoods I had either spent little time or had never been to at all.  Visiting places like Morningside, Bushwick, Canarsie, the Financial District, and East Harlem made the city feel fresh to me.  I can’t say I visited any neighborhoods that left me with the feeling “I can’t believe I lived here for eight years and never knew about this,” but it was nice to see the place that I most closely associate with “home” from a new angle.

So it’s been decided: we will return to New York at the end of our hiatus.  I was looking forward to the excitement of a fresh start someplace new, but a million little things added up to make NYC the place to go.  No complaints though – it still is the greatest city in the world.

Posted by: passedportsnyc | April 27, 2010

Grenades and Riots and Protests, Oh My!

I posted the last entry several weeks ago, mere hours before the Red Shirts deliberately stepped up their game.  Since then, as you may have read in the news, violence has broken out on a number of occasions, and the current death toll is about 28 (the numbers reported by the government and by the protestors differ slightly).  I passed through Bangkok on April 11, the day after the first – and to date deadliest – outbreak of violence.  I found the city surprisingly quiet and calm – far more so than usual, in fact. There was very little traffic, few people on the streets.  I did see a heavier police presence than normal and a few barricaded roads, but all in all it was quiet.  Despite the previous day’s violence, the atmosphere of the city had that calm-before-the-strom quality, rather than the post-storm chaos that I expected.  (En route I had met some people at a rest stop who refered to the city as a “war zone.”  I was quite nervous about what I would find on arrival, but as it turns out my worries were unfounded.)

In the two weeks since, Bangkok protestors have continued to make headlines.  Months ago my parents planned to come visit.  They arrived this past Saturday, just a few days after the State Department escalated the travel warning to avoid all non-essential travel to Bangkok.  (That said, the US Embassy in Bangkok sent an email warden message today advising that Americans should “defer non-essential travel to Bangkok, but must also determine for themselves what is essential and what is not,” which suggests that the situation is not as bad as the non-essential travel advisory makes it out to be.).  Because the hotel my parents had originally booked was located in the epicenter of the strike area, they opted to cancel their reservation and stay out by the airport before moving on to Vietnam a few days earlier than planned, thereby avoiding downtown altogether.

I, however, did have to go downtown in order to get onward transport down south.  On Sunday when I tried to get a taxi to the train station, in the heart of the city, the cab driver pleaded with me not to go there.  I settled on going to an agency on the outskirts of the city that was able to issue same-day tickets.  As it turns out, the train was booked, so I had to catch a bus from Khao San Road and Banglamphu, right downtown.  (The same area that fellow traveller had referred to as a “war zone” a couple of weeks before.)  I was a bit apprehensive, based on the 15-minutes it took to convince the cab driver to take me there.  The ride into town was fast and traffic-free.  I saw no Red Shirts anywhere, no demonstrations, no road blocks.  Just a couple of days ago the public transit system was shut down and there were reports of grenades, so clearly they are still around.  I just didn’t happen to see any.  Unlike my visit to Khao San Road a few weeks ago – when the area was packed with Red Shirt sharing large Chang beers with tourists – this time there was not a protestor in sight.  They mood of the protests has definitely changed. There were a fair number of tourists, more than I expected given the advisories, but it was definitely quieter than usual.

I hopped on the bus and had an uneventful ride south.  Obviously I am relieved that my travels through Bangkok have been trouble-free, and I would advise anyone else passing through Bangkok to be weary and exercise caution.  I hope that a resolution can be reached soon, and without any more bloodshed.  However, I can’t help feeling like my super-smooth Bangkok experiences have been a tiny bit anti-climactic given all the media hype.  But I suppose, in this case, I should be grateful that I don’t have a better story to report.

Posted by: passedportsnyc | April 4, 2010

It All Comes Full Circle

Last weekend I went to Bangkok to meet some friends who were flying in from New York. I was curious as to what I would find given all the Red Shirts in the news lately.

About two weeks ago the United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship, commonly known as the Red Shirts, began to filter into the capital from all over rural Thailand. They came to protest the legitimacy of the current government and the 2006 bloodless coup that ousted former Prime Minister Thaksin on the basis of political corruption.

I had read about rallies of 100,000+ people and dousing government buildings in blood so I wasn’t sure what to expect.

The Red Shirts seemed to be having a jolly time in the big bad capital, joy riding in motorbike caravans, singing songs, and drinking with tourists on Khao San Road.  Families of Red Shirts were chilling under sun shades, cooking rice and having picnics on the side of the road.  Others were touring the city in the back of pickup trucks, shouting “I love you” at us in English, playing cards, or wandering the streets of Chinatown.

That is not to say they weren’t serious about their cause.  Anyone in doubt need only to look to the mass blood donations to see that they are not just visiting Bangkok on holiday.  But, like everything and everyone in Thailand, the protests and the Red Shirts never seem to lose sight of the fun factor. You get the sense that people here believe that life should be fun, and they look for ways to bring that into everything they do.  It’s all about maintaining a positive attitude and not letting tedious activities – work, school, chores – get you down.  Same philosophy seems to apply to political protests, which are for the most part conducted in good spirits and without animosity.  Even the government security personnel on duty seemed respectful and amiable, and, from what I saw, were not antagonistic to the protestors, as they might have been in many countries.  (Obviously there are exceptions to every rule, as evidenced by the 2008 protests which did end in violence.)

Curious about what the cityfolk thought of the protests, I began asking Bangkok taxi drivers for their take on Thai politics. Without exception, they claimed no interest in politics and began stroking their medallions featuring images of the king (who is revered countrywide) invariably hung from their rearview mirrors.

Regular readers may remember our accidental stay at the creepy, cult-ish Wararot Grand a few months ago. Finally all that red makes sense. Hopefully that stay will not be interpreted as an indication of political allegiances, as it was purely accidental and we had no idea what it was at the time.  But given recent events, it is all the more fascinating in hindsight.

Posted by: passedportsnyc | March 26, 2010

Egg Yoke Ping Pong and Other Diving Adventures

We’re here in Koh Tao, a small island off Thailand’s east coast.  In the last decade or so it has established itself as a major diving hub, issuing many thousands of scuba certifications each year.  Not only is the water warm and clear, but the price is right: a two tank dive with all equipment costs about $42, compared with more than double that in most places.  So, I spent the last week getting my PADI Advanced Open Water certification.

I first got my open water certification way back in 1996.  To be honest, I don’t remember much of anything I learned in the course, but I think it was a lot of theory related to physiology, the effects of pressure on the body, dissolved nitrogen and things like that.  I was expecting more of the same in the advanced course.

Instead, the PADI Advanced Diving Manual teaches you things like this:

“When you arrive [at the boat], ask for permission to board and and wait until a crew member invites you aboard.”

and,

“…the big difference between terrestrial and aquatic environments is that on land, organisms are surrounded by air, and underwater they’re surrounded by water.”

Uh, thanks for clarifying that.

Luckily we weren’t required to do too much with the manual.  Most of it was common knowledge or common sense; there was very little new information.

The advanced course was more about spending time in the water.  My instructor was fantastic, and apparently a bit of a legend on the island (he has logged more than 7,000 dives!).  For each dive we focused on just one thing, for example, fine-tuning your buoyancy techniques, or navigation skills.  Usually when I go diving my mind is filled with a thousand things: am I breathing properly? Where is the divemaster? Don’t accidentally touch that sea urchin or that fire coral. How much air do I have left? And so on and so forth.  By perfecting certain aspects of diving, one at a time, and just spending a lot more time in the water, the course really does make you a better diver.

We saw barracuda, blue spotted string rays, moray eels, puffer fish, lion fish, box fish, and all kinds of other good stuff (no sharks though, hopefully next time).  But the best part of the course was egg yoke ping pong. If you take a raw egg down 30 meters and crack it open, the white dissolves into the water, but the pressure of 30 meters of water makes the yoke remain in tact.  You can actually toss it back and forth and swat at it (gently of course) in an underwater game of ping pong.  Whoever destroys the egg yoke loses.  How come I never saw that on Mr. Wizard as a kid??

Posted by: passedportsnyc | March 18, 2010

Trans World Expedition

This guy is so much more hardcore than we are.

Here is an overview of Nicholas Rapp’s trip driving around the world, written just before he left last fall: A Year on the Road.

And this is a report on his first four months, driving from New York City to Buenos Aires: A 13,000 mile drive south: NYC to Argentina.

Whenever we begin to commiserate about the hassle of rejoining the “real world” we fantasize about extending our trip with a few months driving around South America, or through South America to get home, akin to the first leg of Nick’s journey.

A few months back we met a French couple in Malawi doing a similar trip in a similarly outfitted vehicle.  They had driven all over South America and shipped the car to South Africa to drive around some more.  Their adventure sounded amazing – in your own vehicle you can get to so many more interesting, less touristed, more remote places than you can on public transportation.  Having such access opens up in-depth cultural experiences of the sort that are so elusive when you’re on the traveler trail.  And you aren’t tied to other people’s schedules the way you are with buses and trains.  I was so jealous of them and their freedom.

In theory I would LOVE an adventure like his, but the reality is that I hate driving, I prefer places where cars aren’t necessary, and, as such, I don’t know the first thing about cars or what to do when something goes wrong with them.  So perhaps it’s not such a good idea for me.  Not to mention, when you take into account shipping, fuel, and maintenance costs, it becomes much more expensive than traveling our way.   There’s also the issue of all that gas and pollution – I just feel better taking public transportation.

So for now, we’ll head home in July, try to get jobs and once again become productive members of society.  But if the job market isn’t good to us… who knows?

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