After 2 years, 2 weeks, 2 days and 38 countries, we have finally reached the end of our envisioned trip. We realized long ago that too quick a move back to civilization would likely cause headaches and internal bleeding, so we decided that Paris would be our method to slowly and safely try out ‘normal’ life again.
have a cute little apartment in the Marais district just a 10 minute walk from the Louvre and Notre Dame. What’s ‘little’? How about 350 square feet. That’s smaller than our bedroom at the Los Gatos house. And we’re very happy to have so much space in this part of town. There are flats half this size for rent.
We’ve already installed geraniums and fun lights we picked up in Bangkok. For the first time in 2 years, we have a closet, and it’s already full. My allocated space has a suit, 3 t shirts and 2 wetsuits…
What now? Well, we’ve been wandering around town so far. Saw a ballet last night in French
We’re going on a side trip to Spain and Morocco with Mary’s mom and brother in a few weeks. And…and… well we’ll just have to see. We’re STILL on vacation, after all.
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So, yeah. The Maldives are pretty cool for diving with the big fish. But there really isn’t much else to do if the big boys don’t come out to play. The coral and macro life isn’t so great and we spent several dives looking for other forms of entertainment… and sometimes a little snack…
Marcel does always swim with a fork, and I’m never underwater without travel chopsticks. mmmmm….anago…
The currents were sometimes roller coaster fun and we got to watch the lazier divers hang onto coral for their dear lives. My favorite move was by a German couple who could magically use both hands to grab on to the reef while kicking the coral behind them AND somehow poke at a scorpionfish to take a blurry picture of him.
There was another technique that we’d never seen before. It starts with that Batman utility belt you got last Christmas. Secure the grappling hook to the reef below and then lay back and take a snooze while the world blows by. Now this actually does make sense in some situations and can be better for the reef than using your hands – if you’re careful. But the sight of ten divers strapped into the reef in a very mild current just waiting for their suffering to end is a little funny. In all seriousness, I’ve never seen so much general disregard for nature amongst a group of divers. We all accidentally kick, touch and break things now and then while diving, but I take it for granted that everyone is trying not to. This trip taught me that there are a lot of divers who just don’t care and that’s really sad.
Sad, but it reminds of the other German girl who stopped at nothing to get a blurry photo of everything. One dive, she crawled into a hole on top of an exposed rock and didn’t realize she had chased her target octopus out a small hole in the bottom. So the octopus is now sitting near me and we’re both watching her butt hang out as she’s draped over this rock still looking inside for my new friend. Oh, if only I had a camera for that!
Mary says: but what about the lady that massaged an anemone with her hand?!
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The Maldives sit near deep water and provide a nutrient-rich environment that attract a good cross section of the marine food chain. Popular members of nature for divers are the 8-15ft manta rays and 15-60ft whale sharks. With a little luck, there are even hammerhead shark schools lurking here and there. But the big fish don’t always come out to play. The cruise before us apparently had terrible weather and saw basically nothing.
But that’s ok, we had good weather and great luck with the fishies. Our third day out, we were in the water by sunrise to look for hammerheads in the deep open water where there nothing to be seen but dark blue peppered with shimmering plankton. Eventually, a pair of fat hammerhead sharks glided silently by to check us out. Soon after the outlines of a dozen more around us appeared and drew closer. We’ve seen so much diving the last couple years that little excites me anymore, but all I could do was shout WOW! again and again…and again when we surfaced.
The next big dive was a manta ray cleaning station. We waited anxiously on a sandy bottom 78ft under as our air and nitrogen time quickly ticked away. After a bit everyone started to drift slowly shallower along a nearby reef. Well, everyone except Mary. She was on manta watch and stayed in the sand staring into the blankness ever so patiently. As the group was moving out of our sight, I went to prod her on a bit. Just as I got to her, I see the first manta coming right at us. I was too fixated for charades so I just grabbed her and aimed her at our visitors. Around eight 8ft to 15ft mantas played around in our bubbles for almost half an hour. We both were buzzed within inches of the big boys as they came by to see what we were all about time and again. As great as the mantas were, the most amazing show was watching one of the dive guides physically restrain a German woman trying to escape his grasp and mount a manta.
Next stop: whale sharks. The game here is to cruise a stretch of deeper water on the outside of an atoll and watch for their shadows. One minute we’re napping after the morning dive then the bell rings and we’re jumping off the boat to snorkel with a 30ft whale shark. Through our captain’s persistence and luck, we found and swam with 7 whale sharks from 25 to 35 feet long in a four hour period. It seemed like no sooner had we dried off than he found another. The first 6 encounters were ok but shared with many divers. We stuck with the 7th shark longer than the others and when I finally looked up I saw that our boats were a couple hundred yards away. It
took me about 5 minutes of on and off signalling to finally get noticed. For almost half an hour we were alone with a 30ft whaleshark who continually swam within petting (we didn’t) reach and even let me dive down beneath him a bit. These animals are beautiful to watch swim at any distance but it is truly amazing to be so close and -feel- their presence. A 30ft fish an arm’s distance away is just…huge. Thanks for the photo, Marcel.
As if those encounters weren’t enough, we also saw innumerable whitetip, blacktip and grey sharks including a school of a dozen babies. Single mantas joined us for a few more dives, a couple of dolphins cruised by on one dive and I caught a really rare glimpse of a sailfish (maybe marlin?) passing by on another. After one dive, a half dozen dolphins came by and we jumped right back in the water to snorkel with them. They weren’t particularly friendly, but it was fun to watch them watch us.
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I’ll get this over with quickly. The bell rang at some ridiculous time like 5am. I assembled the underwater camera quickly and we jumped in the water in morning darkness to search for hammerheads. At about 20ft under, I noticed the camera case was slowly flooding. I ran(?) back to the surface and got the camera out of the case as quickly as possible and got the boat’s attention to come back and pick it up from me. So first bummer of the trip: no hammerhead
photos. After the dive, we found the camera functional, but with water spots clouding the lens. Oh, the horror! How sore my arm is from Mary punching me.Here we entered the frantic and desperate times that have made us so well acquainted with the inside of our camera that we could easily get jobs with Canon.
Cleaning the lens by flooding it with freshwater didn’t work, so our next desperate move was to swap the lens assembly with the jammed up one that we had replaced in Bangkok. Yeah, I’m a geek. I kept the busted lens assembly because it looked cool. This worked unreliably for a few dives, but the original busted gear problem eventually beat us. For our second trick, Mary disassembled the delicate lens assembly with hopes to clean the individual lenses inside.
Wow, what a job, but she did it. Unfortunately, we couldn’t quite get this evil jigsaw puzzle back together. So – we’ve got no photos of any of the good stuff we saw. Oh well, at least we got to see it all and you don’t have to suffer through 200 manta and whaleshark photos.
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Our stop in Sri Lanka was denied by a delayed Air Asia flight and our only alternative was to fly directly to the Maldives. Unfortunately, we could only get a night flight an so missed the view of the atolls from the air. After moving through the tiny airport, we met our greeter and jumped onto a small ferry to our hotel on the main island of Male. That’s right, the airport gets it’s own island and the island is no bigger than the runway and terminal. Male itself is like a Playschool Manhattan. I went for a walk to get water and saw about a third of town in less than an hour.
The next morning, our rastafarian dive guide showed up to take us to our home for the next two weeks, the MV Stingray. We joined up with some of our 16 European (German, Austrian, Dutch) boatmates on a 30′ dhoni (s
mall boat) for
pickup. When the it’s not running errands, the dhoni carries all the dive gear and follows the big boat around. It’s a really nice setup since the air compressors are also on the dhoni so we didn’t have to listen to them between dives. Our two week cruise moved us through five atolls and three dozen dives.
A typical day started with a wakeup knock at 5:45am, a confusing dive briefing at 6:30 and then normally a short dhoni ride to the dive site. Currents play a big role in atoll diving and are not predictable by the tides here, so one of the guides always jumped in the water to watch the direction the fish were swimming to determine which way the current was blowing and where the boat should drop us so we’d land near our intended dive spot. Invariably, no matter what the spotter saw, he would sing the same deadpan Bob Marley song “Medium to strong current. Medium to strong current. Go down quickly. Go down quickly.” We’d all jump in the water and usually not see the guide again until we were back on the boat. We’d be home for breakfast by 7:30 and napping by 9. Most days had dives at around 11 and 3 with only a couple night dives. That left a lot of time for napping.
Interrupting naptime, we had opportunities to visit a few islands. The ones we saw were all pretty similar: sandy streets lined with brightly colored walls hiding family compounds. A main street right in front of the jetty with a few tourist shops. Maybe a boat or two under repair on a beach. A few fully covered women playing badminton in front of a mosque. Pretty much just like Hawaii.One night we had dinner on a tiny uninhabited island. We showed up after dark to find the crew had layed out a candle runway for us leading straight to the whale shark-shaped table they dug into the sand. That was cool enough, but then they got drunk, played with fire and tried to sing for us. ouch…
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Charles Darwin theorized that atolls are formed by coral reefs growing at the edge of sinking volcanoes. Give a few million years and all you have left is a ring of reef with little or no actual land left in the middle. Anything above water left in the middle becomes an island with the fringing reef protecting it from the open ocean. Given more time the island too will disappear. The Maldivian islands’ maximum height of 7.8ft above sea level doesn’t bode well for the 350,000 people in this Islamic country.
That’s where we are, somewhere in the 600 mile stretch of coral and sand in the Indian Ocean known as the Republic of Maldives. Amidst the atolls there are a debatable 2000ish spits of sand, 1192 of which have something green rising above the sand on them, and only about 200 of those that people call home. More than half of those are private or resort islands.
Where else in the world would you expect to find islands named “Paradise”, “Holiday”, “Picnic”, “Fun”, and the constantly burning “Trash Island” mixed in with Dhoonidhoo, Nakatchafushi and Hulhumale? Sadly, we haven’t found Fantasy or Pleasure Islands.
Finding your island of choice on the map isn’t easy. Maldivian maps belong on golf course scorecards. Instead of fairways and traps, you get submerged reefs (green) and land (yellow). The 100 square miles of Maldivian dry land hide on 1,800 square miles of reef spread over more than 45,000 square miles of ocean.
Regardless, over half a million mostly European tourists visit these specks every year. Most sit in little resorts on those tiny islands. The more claustrophobic tourists like us come to the Maldives to board a dive boat and scoot through the atolls in search of manta rays, hammerheads, and whale sharks.
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You get to eat pizza everyday and have ice cream whenever you want. That was our experience while mixing with the sunburnt foreigners on the beautiful beaches of Koh Phi Phi in southern Thailand. The islands in this area are gorgeous. It was so good that we decided to skip the other islands we had on our list and spend the entire time here. You just have to accept that you’re one of the thousands that flock and bake here. Don’t fight it, just pass the coconut please!
We hiked, snorkeled, took boat trips, but mostly we just worked on our tan lines while watching the parade of bikini bottoms stroll by. Yeah, bikini tops aren’t really the in thing here. They’re so 7th grade dance.
We also spent some time exploring Krabi, Ao Nang, and Railei before saying farewell to Thailand, for now. Little did we know that a technical problem with our plane would cause us to miss our connecting flight to Sri Lanka thus forcing us to spend a couple of unplanned days in Bangkok before we could secure new flight to the Maldives directly, thereby missing Sri Lanka altogether. A big AIYA!
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Most people go to the Similans because it’s supposed to be one of the top places in the world to dive but for us it’s a convenient place to try out our shiny new dive gear.
We booked ourselves onto a 4 day liveaboard with 21 other tourist divers, 8 divemasters and 7 crew; the MV Dolphin Queen embarked from Khao Lak in south Thailand. Before we pushed off from the dock the crew lit a 10ft string of firecrackers hanging off the bow of the ship to bless the boat for its voyage. We were told not to worry because the pressurized bottles of oxygen and generators were in the back of the boat. The vessel wasn’t big but somehow there was always space and plenty of lively conversation. We were even surprised by how little toe stepping there was given there was only 3 bathrooms on the entire boat that everyone shared. It’s funny, when we were on land sitting in the dive office watching their dive video we kept whispering to each other ‘where’s the fish’. There was a very noticeable absence in the usual underwater reef scene. And we had heard from people that have history in these waters that in the last two years between the mass tourism and warmer waters (el nino gets blamed for everything) the quality and abundance of the fish life has dropped dramatically. So we were set up for a pretty tame time and wow, there really was nothing to see. Sure there were highlights now and then but in general the visibility was low, the water cold, and creatures few. We still made the most of it and kept on jumping in four times a day. On the boat we were having a good time and there was enough underwater to keep us interested. Even more importantly our gear was working nicely.
– steve says: The Similans don’t top my dive list, but they were better than I had expected. No big fish, but we did get seahorses, ghost pipefish and a stonefish!
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After so many temples in so many Southeast Asian countries, it’s hard to get excited about seeing ANOTHER temple and yet we found ourselves on a slow boat from Mandalay down the Irawaddy to visit the temple-strewn plains of Bagan.
The temples started sprouting up here like weeds a thousand years ago. There are now around 2000 temples remaining – with a few brand new ones to offset the thousands that have been destroyed over the years. That sounds pretty incredible, and it sort of is. It is hard to find a spot where there is not a temple of some sort in site. Some of the temples can be climbed and offer unreal panoramas of a galaxy of stupas rising above the trees.
The temples are fairly spread out over 16 or so square miles of farmland, so we rented bicycles for a few days to explore. That turned out to be a bit of work on some of the sandy paths, but at least there weren’t any real hills. I woke up at 5:30am one day to capture the temples rising through the misty jungle sunrise. Instead, I got a 5 mile bikeride in the darkness and rain and a few gloomy photos. Yay!Like the rest of Myanmar, Bagan was largely devoid of tourists. On our biking adventures, we came across hundreds of temples, but only a handful of foreigners. Only sunset at one of the big temples near a posh hotel drew them from their air conditioned lives. OK…we had A/C, too. But we managed to go outside and see stuff during the day.
We also found the moral equivalent of the Thai “No Whammies” Prayer Machine. Here, you throw money at target wishes a spinning wedding cake. I’m shooting for “May you win in lottery”.
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Next stop: Inle Lake, probably the #2 tourist destination in Myanmar. Inle is surrounded by villages that start on the lake itself and gradually move up and onto dry land. There are even water bungalow resorts on the lake. I can’t think of any reason you’d come here and isolate yourself from Myanmar by staying in a beachless resort, but people do. We stayed in Nyuangshwe, a short canoe ride up a canal from the lake itself where we were surrounded by a great local scene and a few businesses close to our hearts.
neighbor had an authentic homemade wood fired pizza oven that he knew how to use and just an appetite-whetting walk away was Pancake Kingdom serving up chocolate covered strawberry and banana love for breakfast, lunch or dinner. For us, it seemed like we stayed in a very local town, but Nyuangshwe is normally well touristed. More than once we found ourselves sitting alone in a cafe hearing from the owner that there were now only 10-20% the number of tourists as the same time last year.
Back on the lake, we wandered through a handful of villages on foot and also by boat through the many canals. As many fishermen as we saw on the lake we couldn’t figure out what they are really doing because we never saw a single fish in a net or boat. There was very little fish in town, either. No wond
er one person we met said the fishermen were the poorest people in the area. The lake edge does house large “floating gardens”, though. Tomatoes and sugar cane are grown in great enough quantity to export from the area. We got really lucky and passed a shack where the sugar cane is pressed and boiled down into bars of pure goodness for easy transport to the sugar refineries. Oh, it’s so yummy. They should just wrap it up with the label “instant cavity” and ship to America.
Aside from the general beauty, friendly people and interesting villages, the
highlight of the lake is the temple complex at Indein. After braving a half mile of
souvenir stall-laden covered walkway up to the temple, we continued on to a hill
behind that overlooks the temple and lake. What a view.
My vote for best religious sellout in Southeast Asia also sits on the lake: Jumping Cat Monastery. It has a real name, too, but that hasn’t been relevant since the monks first taught cats to jump through hoops for their kibble.
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