The Weather Turns

Sometimes you wake up at 5:00 AM and start walking through the pouring rain … and really start to question why you keep doing this. Then you get on the painfully slow, narrow gauge train that supposedly has such wonderful views only to realize you won’t see anything due to this wonderful rain that has now soaked you through to the core. And all the while, we’re trying to cope with a sensation we haven’t felt in a long time – cold.

But then the train starts. It chugs along, winding uphill steadily. We dip in and out of the clouds as the rain comes in spurts. The views, while not vast, envelop hills in various shades of cloudy grey. We get a hot cup of tea to warm us up, and we sit back and enjoy the show.

The train chugs in two hours late and we trudge to a hotel, though mercifully, the rain has stopped. The clouds slowly diminsh as the day wears on, until we are rewarded for our early morning efforts with a gorgeous sunset.

We have landed in Shimla, the famous hill station and seat of the British Raj every summer. More rewards await us the next morning. We awaken to crystal clear skies and a view of all the hills surrounding us and stretching all the way across to the Himalayan range.

Thrilled with the prospect of our first good weather day in India, we decide to go for a walk the tourism office recommended. It turned out to be a bit more challenging and less clear than a “walk,” but it was the kind of day I really like. The terrain was varied, we wandered downhill through wooded forests in the “glen” before winding back up hill through local villages on a trail that led to a beautiful waterfall before returning to the British opulance of the Viceregal Lodge, the former summer home of the Viceroy of India and a classic British building that looked like something out of Harry Potter.

The people were wonderful, we said a few namastes and hellos, posed for a few pictures and shared a whole lot of smiles. And the weather was perfect. So we got our answer … days like this are why we keep doing this.

Smile! You’re On Some Indians Camera

So you’re probably wondering who these people are that we’re posing with in these photos. Well, so are we. We don’t know them. We didn’t meet them until about two seconds before the camera shutter snapped. They might have mentioned their names when they thanked us for the photo, but that’s all we got.

So why are we in the photos? Well, we’re not exactly clear on that either, but apparently Indian people really like to have their photo taken with white people. It started at the Red Fort in Delhi, when a guy asked Jeff to take a photo with him. We originally thought he wanted us to take a picture for him, but he quickly made it clear that he wanted Jeff to be in the picture.

The photo-taking continued at our next destination, Shimla, where Jeff was asked to pose with people’s young sons as well as by older gentleman. I was snapped in photos with local women. It seemed taboo to take a photo with the opposite sex as it was always Jeff with men and me with women. And they never wanted just a photo of us; they wanted to be in the photo with us.

Neither of us can quite figure out what the heck these people do with the photos. Do they go home and show all their friends the photo of the white person they saw on their holiday? Do they make up some story and in someone else’s world, we’re their best friend or co-worker or long lost cousin? Are we hanging on someone’s Indian refrigerator? I really have no idea. But for some reason, being in a photo with us makes these people quite happy, so we just smile for the camera and then accept their thanks. It must be good karma.

First Impressions of India

It’s hard to believe its come to this, but we now have less than one month left on our journey. We are spending most of that time in India, having arrived here last night. So far, here are our first impressions.

We have this habit of overpreparing. This is sometimes good and useful, and other times pretty much counterproductive. For the last four days of our time in Malaysia, we poured over websites and through our guidebook, absorbing every tidbit of information we could about India. All of this extra time to think and rethink is also partially an indictment of the lack of enthralling activities to do in KL combined with the archaic and tedious process of obtaining an Indian visa.

Nevertheless, we found ourselves hearing all sorts of horror stories about the subcontinent, especially for new arrivals. We were amazed and terrified by stories of rampant pickpocketing, constant tout bothering, scammy drivers, demands for tips, food poisoning and various combinations of the above.

Things did not get off to a great start. Our thorough research had uncovered a well reviewed hotel near the train station in Delhi, the quality being quite a unique and remarkable thing for the area. After emailing for two days trying to find out the rate and reserve a room, we ultimately failed to know anything for certain as we boarded the plane in Kuala Lumpur. So we got off the plane in India not really knowing where we were going, already breaking a cardinal rule of tout filled areas. We had decided to head to our chosen hotel anyway, bought a prepaid taxi ticket after comparing rates of a few companies, and headed out to the taxi ranks. Here things got confusing. One tout tried to lead us away from the taxi rank. We followed him for a few steps before realizing he was headed away from the taxis. Then another tout offered his services and led us to the third taxi in line. Thinking the first two already had customers, we got in, but the yelling and arguing that ensued probably meant the tout had an arrangement with lucky #3. Just as we pulled away our friendly tout jumped in the car with us and began chatting us up. We spun a good yarn about it being our third visit to India, this time to visit our friend who was working in Delhi and was waiting for us at our hotel, where we already had a reservation. Finding this scenario to be unlucrative, since he couldn’t steer us to his hotel of choice, our tout friend jumped out on the onramp to the highway out of the airport.

Arriving at the hotel, we pulled into the Pahar Ganj area of Delhi. At 11 PM, this area is choc-a-block full of people with nowhere else to go. Cardboard beds lined the streets, people wandered about and a few rickshaws waited for fares that weren’t materializing. Every shop was sealed shut and the whole neighborhood was terribly uninviting. It was not somewhere we wanted to be wandering around with backpacks looking for somewhere to stay. Luckily, when we arrived at the hotel, they had reserved a room for us and we checked in no problem. Waking up the next morning, we found a bustling series of market streets coupled with a chorus of honking and lively chatter amongst people despite the monsoon rain. In reality, a complete 180 from the night before.

Our first mission was to book our train tickets, which we managed with relative ease at the tourist booking office, scheduling out our entire next three weeks. On the one hand, this was a terrifying prospect, because one thing we have become accustomed to is last minute and spur of the moment decision making, but on the other, it is nice to not have to think so much about what we are doing the next three weeks.

Our afternoon consisted of our first foray out into Delhi. We started by hiring a rickshaw to take us to the National Museum. After a long drive, frankly longer than either of us were expecting, our driver pulled over in quite an industrial area and with a smile pointed to a sign that said “International Doll Museum.” There were two things wrong with this: first, what kind of rickshaw driver doesn’t know where one of the biggest attractions of the city is, but second, what kind of driver instead knows where the International Doll Museum is? I mean, when I asked where on the map we were, we were halfway out of the city. Amazing really. Anyway, we got him straightened out and after almost as long a trip headed back, we arrived at the museum.

We perused the museum until closing, a beautiful collection of Indian art dating back five millenia through a long and impressive history. We left and headed for the India Gate, circumnavigating it before walking back along the Rajpath up to Parliament and the President’s house. We walked back to Connaugh Place through a light but steady rain before giving up and hiring a rickshaw back to the hotel. We never any troubles, rarely had touts bother us and if so, never for long, found most people to be delightful and helpful and the areas of the city we visited, especially along the Rajpath, to be lovely. For all the stories we’ve heard and worries we had, I must say, we’re off to a good start in India. Now let’s just hope writing this post hasn’t jinxed everything!

Bad Timing in Borneo

For most of our trip we’ve been lucky. Without much advance planning, things have gone our way. We were able to snag a bed in the refugios at Torres del Paine a few days before we set off on our hike. In Uganda, on less than week’s notice, we managed to get five passes to trek with the gorillas. Luck was being a lady to us, as these are things that people tell you you must book months if not years in advance. We were assisted by the fact that in South America and Africa we were traveling outside of the high season. Additionally, the global economic crisis was keeping a lot of travelers at home.

Advance planning is not a friend of the long-term backpacker. When you have months in a region of the world, you don’t want to tie yourself down to being in any one place at any one time. It limits you…forcing you to leave somewhere you love before you are ready or linger longer somewhere that doesn’t much interest you. Unfortunately, it seems that sometimes that kind of planning is necessary.

When we entered Southeast Asia, we knew the game was going to change a little. It was summer, European vacation time as well as Australian winter vacation time, and SE Asia is a hotspot for these travelers. It’s also a backpacker haven with visitor numbers always hovering at a high number. But for the most part, things went our way. Crowds were bigger, but we weren’t kept from doing anything we wanted, as long as we maintained a bit of flexibility.

Then we hit Malaysia. Suddenly having the flexibility to wait a few days, or even a few weeks, wasn’t enough. Not only was it European holiday season here in Malaysia, which is buzzing with tourists who prebooked every little detail of their trip months ago when sitting in their offices watching the snow turn to mush outside their windows, it’s also school holidays for locals. Topping it off is the fact that it’s Ramadan.

I wasn’t aware of it but apparently Ramadanm, in addition to being a time of fasting and alms-giving, is a popular time for travel. (As a side note, Malaysia, though an Islamic nation, isn’t a difficult place to be food-wise during Ramadan. Thanks to the very multi-cultural population, lots of places stay open and serve food all day, in particular the Chinese and Indian restaurants.)

But back to the timing… It started on the Perhentian Islands, where we loaded a packed boat to arrive on an even more packed island. Every single accomodation option was booked. The room our dive shop had tried to reserve for us had been given away. People were sleeping on the beach, sleeping on the porches of already-full guesthouses. Our dive shop offered us a bed in a room behind the shop. It was literally nothing more than a bed next to a thumping bar, but it was the best we could do. The next morning we got up early to try to snag a room being emptied by one of the travelers returning to the mainland. We visited every single accomodation on Long Beach, Coral Beach, and every other foot-accessible beach. In the end, the best we could score was two dorm beds…as well as a reservation for a room the next three nights since someone at (the highly-recommended) Bintang View Cabins had had the courtesy to let the staff know when they were leaving.

You see, that was the biggest problem on the island. Bintang View was pretty much the only guesthouse that required guests to let the staff know at least one night before they departed. No other guesthouse knew what rooms they’d have available until the second the guest checked out. You had to be lucky and be there at that moment to snag that room, especially since nowhere took advance reservations. Why should they when they know they’ll have people begging at their door for a room?

From the Perhentians, our next stop was Taman Negara. Jerantut is the jumping-off point for Taman Negara, and where we found loads and loads of tourists securing boat tickets to the park. While Jeff joined the line, I went down the road to see if I could find another place selling the tickets. I wandered into an empty travel agency and when I inquired about getting to Taman Negara, the man who made a living by selling such tickets, advised me not to go to the park, to go far, far away in fact. He raged about crowds and told me to tell all my friends not to come. It wasn’t exactly what I expected from a travel agent.

And though we considered his advice, we were there and wanted to go, so we just tried to find a way to beat the crowd. Instead of the boat, we took the local bus, which not only got us to the park two hours earlier, it also cost us 1/5 of the price. There before the crowd, we were luckily able to get a room; the hordes wandering around after the boat arrived were not all as lucky. It seems all those “Malaysia Truly Asia” commercials all over television were too effective. The hordes were here; the accommodation options were not.

From the mainland we hopped over to Borneo, hoping that perhaps it wasn’t as crowded. No such luck. On a visit to the Tourist Information center in Sandakan, we were asked what we wanted to do on Borneo. Our answer was “dive Sipadan, climb Mt. Kinabalu, visit Gulung Mulu.” The very helpful lady there smiled and wished us luck, giving us a bunch of phone numbers to call to ask about cancellations. Getting a spot outright for any of these activities was not a possibility. And in the end cancellations weren’t to be found either. Diving Sipadan, one of the best dive sites in the world, would have to wait. For Mt. Kinabalu, we’d just have to be content with hiking around the base. And maybe Niah Caves would be as cool as Gulung Mulu. It wasn’t what we had planned (or, well, hadn’t planned) but it would have to do.

It looks like we’ll have to make a return trip to Borneo, but next time we’ll have it all nicely planned and booked up. Well, at least as much of it as we can. Seeing a rafflesia, the world’s biggest flower, in bloom isn’t something you can nail down, but it didn’t work out for us and our non-planning either. To add insult to injury, we missed the blooming of one of these flowers by one measly day. As they say, when it rains, it pours (which it literally is doing here today).

Jeff Versus the Noodle

Brunei is a tiny country. If you were motivated you could probably walk right across it. And as you might suspect, there’s not a whole lot for a traveler to do in Brunei. So why did we stop there? Well, crossing Brunei is the easiest way to get from the Malaysian Borneo state of Sabah to the Malaysian Borneo state of Sarawak. And if you’re going to cross, you might as well stop and see what there is to see, right? That’s the way we see things.

So what is there to do? Well, in the conservative Muslim but rather friendly nation of Brunei, we pondered the trappings of wealth at the Royal Regalia Museum, respectfully reflected at the Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque, peeked around the floating neighborhood of Kampung Ayer, took a hike to a waterfall, and snacked on some excellent satay.

And oh yeah, Jeff ate noodles. In fact, he ate three packages of Mee Goreng (fried noodles) in a span of just over three minutes. And while that’s fast, it wasn’t fast enough. Someone else managed to eat the same amount of noodles in a span of three minutes and a few less seconds. You see, Jeff’s idea of a good time in Brunei is entering a noodle eating contest, which was held as part of some great big Ramadan sale and festival. The contest was held after dark, of course, so as not to interfere with fasting.

The contest involved two sessions, with Jeff being the only non-local entered into either. His entry brought plenty of smiles from the locals, and he even had his own cheering session yelling “Go USA” as he shoveled noodles into his mouth. Entering the contest, Jeff didn’t think he stood a chance, but as the clock ticked toward the three minute mark, it was down to Jeff and a fellow competitor. They had a few forkfuls of noodles left on their plate, as well as a glass of tea that they had to slam down as the finale, while everyone else had mounds. I suspect that more than a few people entered the contest not to win, but to get a free dinner.

Though there were a few short seconds in the contest where it looked close, in the end Jeff fell to someone with a bit more practice eating noodles. Oh well, we would have missed the finals, scheduled for September 5, anyways, and I’m not sure what we would have done with the grand prize of hundreds of packages of noodles. The free dinner, free t-shirt, and new friends we made was prize enough. Maybe a few more eating contests is just what the world needs. It’s not too often that you see conservative Muslims chanting “Go USA. Go USA.”

Pictures from the River

We’ve been starving you of a picture heavy post for a while now. Since we’re best inspired by wildlife, I suppose that’s because we haven’t been in nature for a while. Sungai Kinabatangan, a long river on Borneo cutting through long tracts of primary jungle, provided a great way to get back into it. And two river cruises from the village of Sukau through the Sukau B&B were a great way of seeing it.

The first was a sunset cruise, followed early the next morning by a sunrise trip.

On both we saw loads of birds.

Not to mention loads of monkeys, including the always hilarious Proboscis Monkeys.

But the highlight of the trips was the rare and large herd of elephants we found eating near the river. They apparently only pass through once or twice a year.

All in all, it was a beautiful trip through some beautiful scenery teeming with amazing wildlife.

Going Ape for Orangutans

During the three years I worked at the Louisville Zoo during high school, I found a way most days to pop in and see the orangutans. I swear that these hairy “men of the forest”* seemed to recognize me and other frequent visitors. You could tell from their eyes that they were smart. And you could tell from their behavior that they loved to play. sometimes I’d come in with the task of washing the visitor side of the window into their enclosures, removing the handprints and noseprints of all the people who couldn’t resist getting close to the orangutans. As I’d work, the orangutans would watch, and when they were feeling naughty, they’d look right at the part I’d just cleaned and then grab some banana and smoosh it right onto the window on their side, the side I couldn’t get to. It made me laugh, and I swear that this would just encourage them to do it more. What magnificent, human-like creatures I’d think.

So when I found out that we could go see orangutans in the wild on the Malaysian island of Borneo, I put it immediately on our itinerary. Plus seeing orangutans would mean that we’d see all four species of great apes in the wild on this trip: humans, gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans.

The exact number of orangutans left in the wild is not exactly known but estimated to be around 20,000. They are highly threatened as logging takes away more and more of their habitat. On Borneo, one of only two places they’re found naturally (Sumatra is the other), orangutans are being forced into smaller and more isolated tracts of forest. They’re also being injured, killed, or orphaned in accidents related to logging. And too often, the orangutans with nowhere else to go, find themselves on farms and plantations searching for food and risking being killed by angry farmers or taken home as pets.

Fighting to save the orangutans—rescuing them from cages, teaching orphans how to survive in the wild, and rehabilitating injured orangutans—is the Sepilok Orangutan Reserve. Here orangutans are given the care they need by trained and passionate staff, before they are weaned from human care and returned to the wild, the reserve encompassing a huge tract of forest ideal for the orangutans. Not enclosed in any way, the orangutans released here are free to stay in the area or move further and further into the remaining wild.

To help the orangutans adjust to the wild and become independent, the center has set up a set of five feeding platforms. The first platform is not far from the center where the orphaned, injured, or displaced orangutans have spent months or even years learning or relearning skills. The fifth is far from the center, in the midst of wild and unvisited forest (except by center staff). The other three fall in between. Twice a day milk and bananas are brought to the platforms to act as supplements to the orangutans diet. The idea is that newly released orangutans will begin by visiting the first platform, and then gradually they will move farther and farther away until they don’t visit the platforms at all.

For some orangutans, this is exactly how it works. Others, once released into the wild, immediately adapt and never visit a platform at all. And still others spend most of their time away from the platforms but occassionally venture back for a snack or to show off a baby. One measure of success is that many of the rehabilitated orangutans have, in the wild, given birth to babies that are completely adapted to life without any human assistance.

But what does this have to do with us seeing orangutans? Well, while we could just take our chances and hope to come across one while wandering around Borneo (possible but difficult since orangutans are actually solitary animals most of the time so you have to have a keen eye), we could also visit the center around feeding time and see if any orangutans come for a visit to platform 1 (the only platform accessible to the public).

Not wanting to miss seeing them, we made the trip to the center and headed out to the platform for the 10 am feeding. Gracing us with their presence were four orangutans, each of whoom took a long swig of milk, grabbed a banana, and then swung about on the ropes. Two went quickly back into the forest while two others hung around and performed acrobatic feats.

When the feeders left the platform, a large family of short-tailed macaques snuck out of the forest and raided the area for leftovers.

With our admission ticket to the reserve good for the entire day, we decided to stay around for the 3 pm feeding. In between we checked out the exhibition center and a film on orangutans, and also followed one of the nature trails in the hopes of catching sight of one high in the trees (didn’t happen). A bit before 3 pm, we returned to the viewing area, where we found something like 7 orangutans hanging around in the surrounding trees and venturing out to the platform. They were much more playful than the ones from the morning feeding, swinging about and wrestling.

It would have been a great feeding. But just as the men with the milk and the bananas came out, the sky opened, and orangutans apparently don’t like getting drenched anymore than we do. While us viewers stood and just endured it, many of the orangutans scattered off. A few did hang out to get the goodies. If we’d been able to get the camera out without dooming it forever, we could have got a few good shots: an orangutan putting his banana peels on his head as if they’d protect his head from rain, another opening his mouth and lifting his head like he was trying to drink the rain, another picking up the entire bucket of milk and pouring it into his mouth.

They were as smart and funny as I remembered, and the entire time we watched them, even as the rain soaked us right through to our underwear and left our shoes full of puddles, I had a great big smile on my face. And while I was thrilled to be able to have this encounter, I couldn’t help feeling a little bit sad that such a place as Sepilok has to exist, that we’re not good enough and smart enough to protect such a magnificent species on our own. For being the more evolved species, we sure do a lot of stupid things.

*The word Orangutan means “man of the forest” in Malay.

The Jungle Revisited

Its become clear throughout this trip, both to ourselves and probably you all, that we have a different idea of fun than most people. Take, for example, our latest foray into the jungle.

It started, as usual, with our transportation. Most people are perfectly happy taking the ubiquitous tourist minibuses from destination to destination, as was offered to us direct from the Perhentian Island jetty. We, with our strange sense of adventure, rejected this option to take the “Jungle Railway.” Which, you must admit, is a very enticing name for a train, especially with its reputation for beautiful scenery. To see it in the daytime, however, the trains only leave at 4 AM and 6 AM. so we got up at the buttcrack of dawn, headed to the station and hopped on the train. It turned out this particular train wasn’t scheduled to go all the way to our destination, Jerantut, which was a downer, but it never even got as far as it was scheduled to go. We broke down after six hours in Gua Musang, which we should’ve hit after three hours. And we weren’t even impressed with the scenery. After running around Gua Musang trying to find a bus out of town and always being a step behind all our fellow train passengers who knew what they were doing, we gave up and waited out the ten hours at the local KFC (complete with free wifi!) until the next train. This train, scheduled to leave at 10:15 PM, finally arrived at 1 AM. So we finally got to Jerantut at 4 AM, nearly 24 hours after we left. And I think we definitely ended up paying more for our transportation after all was said and done than we would have just taking the minibus. The jungle railway plan certainly backfired on us.

But the next afternoon, after sleeping in until 11, we hopped on the bus up to Taman Negara, the most well preserved virgin jungle rainforest in Peninsular Malaysia, home to all sorts of jungle animals. We started by heading to the canopy walkway, 280 meters of high-walking goodness, complete with – well, no animals, bird or otherwise. But the stroll was pretty exciting, especially when you looked down.

We followed that little warm-up with something quite a bit more intense, and in retrospect, a little crazy. We hiked 11 kilometers to a hide, spent the night hopefully observing nocturnal jungle animals, and returned the next day. Sounds ok? Yeah, we thought so too. Here are the things we underestimated:

—steepness of the trail – the trail wound along the river, but went almost vertically down and back up at every ravine that poured into it. Though we didn’t gain any altitude overall, we sure went up and down a lot.

—jungle heat – we started with eleven liters of water, and I had started to cramp by midday. I simply could not drink water fast enough to balance out what I was sweating out. It was dripping off my clothes all day.

—amount of leeches – although the final tally was 2 successfully bloodthirsty leeches for Theresa, 0 for Jeff, we both spent plenty of time flicking them off our shoes and clothes.

—comfort of hide – we knew it would be spartan, but wooden planks sounds easier to sleep on in theory than when you’re actually trying to do it. But the “toilet” was completely backed up and unusable. On the plus side, no rats.

And here’s what we overestimated:

—amount of interesting animals – we sat in the hide late into the night and early in the morning and never saw a thing. For that matter, on the entire hike including our time at the hide, we saw a few monkeys, a squirrel, and a lizard in addition to a mere handful of birds. On the plus side, we heard a lot of birds (and cicadas!)

—availability of boats to take us back downriver on day two – one day of hiking in the jungle wiped us out, so we used our backup plan and headed to a nearby “town” where we were told we could hire a boat to take us back to the park headquarters. We walked up to find a completely deserted town and an empty jetty. Fortunately, other people who had stayed at the hide with us had arranged a boat and a hour or so later we were able to hitch a ride with them.

So it turned out to be a lot more work and and a lot less reward than we were expecting. Is it weird, then, that thinking back to it now I still think it was fun?

Under the Sea: Getting Our SCUBA Certification

I remember as a child watching programs filmed underwater and being overwhelmed with awe. How amazing it seemed to be meters under the oceans surface hovering over coral reefs and watching marine life dart around you. But growing up in Kentucky, I didn’t have much of an opportunity to do things like snorkel or SCUBA. Sure the YMCA offered courses, but learning to SCUBA in a pool and then doing my open water dives in a lake with about 1 foot of visibility did not have quite the same appeal as learning to dive in the tropics. So mainly I just watched TV programs and thought about how cool it would be.

Later in life I’d visit a fair few tropical destinations with happening underwater scenes. I snorkeled off the beaches of Hawaii, in Egypt’s Red Sea, off the coast of Belize, in the amazing waters of the Galapagos Islands, and in a number of other places. But I never found an opportunity to get certified as a SCUBA diver, and I have to admit that as I got older, I became a bit more timid. I don’t really like confined spaces, and though the ocean is certainly not confined, being tied to an oxygen tank seemed like it might be the ultimate claustrophobic situation. I’m also a worrier, and movies like “Open Water” and episodes of “I Shouldn’t Be Alive” about SCUBA diving give my mind plenty of fodder for worry.

When we started this trip, however, we said that once we got to Asia we’d give SCUBA a try, and now with less than two months left in our trip (really, can that be right?), we found the time and place. From August 15-18, we passed our days squirming into wetsuits, donning weight belts and BCDs, and slipping regulators in our mouth as we worked to become certified PADI Open Water Divers. Our choice of location: The warm, turquoise waters of Pulau Perhentian Kecil in northeast Malaysia. Our choice of dive shop: The excellent (and highly affordable) Turtle Bay Divers.

Becoming a PADI Open Water diver combines theory with practice. Our class, which ran from 9 am until nearly 7 pm each day, involved sessions of reading, watching video, and taking quizzes; multiple confined water dives to learn and practice skills; and four to five open water dives to apply our skills. The theory was, at least for me and Jeff, cake. It all makes sense. (In fact, I aced the final exam and thus got a free t-shirt. Jeff. unfortunately, missed one and is thus shirtless.)

The skills were a mixed bag, though I have to admit Jeff was pretty aces with all of them. For me, removing and replacing the regulator underwater, using an alternate air source, gaining neutral buoyancy, skin diving, and the like were no problem. What I didn’t like was having to fill the mask with water and then clear it or remove it completely and replace it. Though you could still keep breathing just fine through your mouth (the way you breathe when diving), when my nose wasn’t secured in my mask, I felt like I wanted to breathe through it too. Also, because I wear contacts, I had to keep my eyes closed when doing these skills and that was pretty disorienting.

What I disliked the most, however, was the CESA (Controlled Emergency Surface Ascent) in which, at a depth of 6 meters, you pretend you have run out of air, and after taking one final breath you must ascend to the surface at the safe pace of 18 meters/minute while making a continuous “ahhhh” sound. Since you’re at 6 meters, that means the ascent has to take 20 seconds. Doesn’t sound long but feels like an eternity.

In the end, we managed to check off all the skills, accomplishing them with sufficient agility to know that we could, if ever faced with a situation, do them again. Hopefully–and most likely–we won’t have to. I did take one dive longer to accomplish it all then Jeff did, as he breezed through all his requirements in a quick 3 days. But really, let’s be honest. If I wanted to, I could have done it in three days too. But why would I pass up the opportunity for a free bonus dive? On the fourth morning, while Jeff just sat on the beach, I hopped back in the water, checked off two quick skills, and then got to spend an amazing half hour swimming lazily 15 meters below the surface, peeking at black-spotted puffer fish, watching Nemo play in the anemones, avoiding eye contact with the colorful trigger fish, marveling at the size of the grouper, and feeling absolutely free and at peace under the sea. It’s as awesome as I thought it would be back when all I could do was watch on TV and wonder.

More Cookery

I’ve always had an addiction to Pad Thai. It started with my first taste of Thai food, at Sawadty Thai Cuisine on Bainbridge Island and has really only grown since. Which makes being able to eat it on a daily basis a wonderful, wonderful thing (though more than once a day is a little to much for me). Now, at home, we’ve tried all sorts of “pad thai” recipes trying to recreate the deliciousness that comes so easily to asian cooks. Pretty much any recipe we could find, that doesn’t require days of preparation, we’ve tried. All to no avail. We’ve been told the “secret ingredients” range from extra sugar and peanuts to ketchup (more on that later). But alas, nothing ever tastes quite like what you get at a Thai restaurant.

So determined to get to the bottom of this once and for all, we took a cooking class in it’s homeland. Specifically, in the heartland of Thai cooking, Chiang Mai. I started off with my favorite Pad Thai. It’s really very simple, just some oil to start the wok, water to keep things from burning, your meat, vegetables and garlic in, then some fish sauce for salty, some sugar for sweet, and some oyster sauce to give it some body. Add your peanuts and sprouts, and presto!, really good pad thai. Of course, the problem is in the whole finding the right ingredients. Fish sauce is relatively common in the US, but oyster sauce may be a little tricker. Unfortunately for all of you, I gobbled it down to fast for Theresa to get a picture. Theresa started with spring rolls and had it down in no time. Delicious stuff, and definitely one for the recipe book.

Really, I could’ve left then and been happy now that I can make my own pad thai, but we went on to to cook about ten other dishes between the two of us. I worked on hot and spicy soup, cashew chicken, spicy red curry, an asian chicken salad and mango sticky rice. Theresa specialized in hot and creamy soup, sweet and sour chicken (hint: secret ingredient – ketchup!), green papaya salad and mango sticky rice. Besides being ridiculously full as we also ate all of our dishes, we left armed with a whole slew of new meals to make. And I’m sure they won’t be as easy as our teachers made them seem, and finding the right ingredients won’t be particularly simple (shrimp paste, which smells disgusting by the way, and green papaya can be a little more difficult to discover, or even identify) but the food’s just worth it.

As a final test to our readers, in the middle of our day, we learned to carve a leaf and a flower. Can you guess who’s handiwork this is?