Thursday, March 19, 2009

Down, But Definitely Not Out

We've been keeping a low key over these last several months. Life back home in California can do that even to the most motivated of individuals. A life of leisure is way too easy to slink back into and that's what we have been enjoying since our return in July 2008. Wow, that was a long time ago. In that time we've kept ourselves busy. Steve's back into hockey, ice and roller, while also improving his tennis game and babysitting skills. I've been enjoying beach volleyball, joined the Santa Monica College tennis team, taking art classes, picking up ballet, and catching up on video games. We also have watched alongside everyone else as the economy dropped off the ledge. Thus the impetus for us to once again turn our attention abroad. We're looking into resuming our world exploration in Central America this April. Everything else is up in the air, including how long we'll be gone. So we're gearing up to hit road, dusting off the backpacks, and looking for our mosquito net. This lengthy nap in our travels is near its end. The blog is coming out of its hibernation and back to life.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

I'm Not Good with Goodbyes

I know 3 months is a short time to call a place home but Paris was that; more so than anywhere else we'd been in our crazy adventure. Of course we had copious amounts of the foods we've come to love. Ah, chiboust I will miss you so. And what will our friendly waiter at O'Jilou think when he notices the Americans aren't coming by to butcher his native language anymore? How will I ever get by without my gelato fix at Amorino? It seems cruel to separate me from Fauchon so soon. Sure the departure was largely self imposed but it was time to move on and bring the travel to a close. At least we were leaving on our terms. Next time we go to Paris it would be to live there. But for now, au revoir.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008


I may not get around to writing blogs very often, but I have found a bit of time to play around with the website. I've pulled the blog into the website, so you only have to remember the same old website name. How nice is that? I'll leave this site here for a while, but all the old posts and your comments are safe and sane on the new site.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

yet another vacation vacation

We're off on another adventure. Tonight we fly to Valencia, Spain to meet Mary's mom and brother for a 10 day tour. We'll spend a few days in southern Spain, seeing the Alhambra and a bit of the frontier before crossing the Straits of Gibralter and moving through Morocco. That means back to sleeping under the stars in the desert for us. I'm pretty accustomed now to hot showers and a clean sheet, so this is going to be rough.

We'll be following some of the same trail that we did almost exactly two years ago in Morocco. We pick up our car in Tangier and will drive to Fes the night. After wandering the ancient medina of Fes, we'll head out to the big dunes near Merzouga. We'll spend as much time on camels as our butts will allow and then head south, hopefully finding the Tondra Gorge and some nice kasbahs on our way to Oarzazate. The trip will finish up in Marrakech with our flight home on June 4th.

Until then, au revoir.

ps. we'll leave the key to our place under the doormat if you're passing through Paris while we're gone. Just do the dishes before you leave, please.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Starbucks will never make it in Europe...

We headed into the Latin Quarter tonight for the beginning of a two week jazz festival. There's a few shows most nights in different venues and a bunch of the small ones are free. Very cool and cultural and Parisian, right?
There were 4 concerts tonight and 3 of them were in a Starbucks. The Latin Quarter isn't all that big, but there are at least 4 of Seattle's best affront to the Old World in place.
Welcome to the Americanification of Europe. Buy Starbucks stock.

Singing The Baguette Blues

We both love the bread in Europe. A warm baguette with lots of super crunchy crust and moist fluffy innards makes any day better.
Most mornings, I run across the street to get a fresh baguette and then fry up some bacon and eggs to complete a perfect brunch. Yes 'brunch'. It's light out until nearly 10pm here, so we're night owls these days.
So the whole daily fresh baguette thing is great and all, but we've discovered that the grass is not always greener. Several times now, we've bitten into (and been bitten back by) squishy, dense or otherwise boring bread. It's horrible. We're not in Milpitas; this is Paris. We have expectations to be met. The bread should -always- be crisp and yummy.
We've boiled down a few theories to these rules:
4) Don't buy on a Monday morning or after a holiday. The oven just doesn't have its heart into the job yet.
3) Skip it on a humid or wet day. It's just not worth the risk.
2) Think twice if the counter girl says "blahblah pas bien blahblah"
1) NEVER EVER buy at the Naturalia grocery. Even if they are the only boulangerie open on Sunday. UGGGG. Healthy bread in any language sucks.

Mary says: the baguettes from the Nature store are like Cold War bread 'da! you veel eat rock!' but today we found a boulangerie that sells the lustiest bread we've had. it's simply glorious.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008


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.

We 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.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Boredom, Hunger and the Lazy Diver

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?!

One Fish, Two Fish, Big Fish...BIGGER FISH

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.

Bad Steve!

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.


Back on the Boat

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 (small 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...

Mommy, what's an atoll?

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.

Life as a Tourist - Two Thumbs Up!

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!

Fake Smiles in the Similans

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 dive gear.

We booked ourselves onto a 4 day liveaboard with 21 other tourist divers, 8 divemasters and 7 crew; the MV Dolphin Queen embarking 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!

Another Day Another Temple ... or Baganarama

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".