January 26, 2017

Scuba Open Water Certification: Notes from a Runner

So, E & I came to Koh Tao with the plan of getting our PADI Open Water Diver Certification.

After a bunch of research (there are several dozen dive schools on the island), we enrolled at Simple Life Divers, and as promised, they picked us up at the super chaotic stereotypical Southeast Asian crowded pier landing from our ferry and got us to the dive-center lodgings.  Our bungalow was basic, but with AC, and a separation between the toilet and shower (the last lodging had the classic "shit-and-shower" no separation 3rd/2nd world configuration. Exactly why shower curtain technology is so difficult, is something I have been continuously trying to understand since my first international travels 20 years ago).

Day 1 was videos and quizzes.  PV=nRT (ideal gas law) study in high school physics and undergrad finally resurfaced and made it easy for me to ace the knowledge reviews and quizzes.  Day 2 was more technical videos, followed by a half day of pool skills. 

The pool skills section SUCKED.

I am used to being one of the more physically oriented, comfortable, talented, okay people in any given athletic situation that I choose to put myself in.  I mean, I'm short, so sometimes stuff is harder for me because of that, but generally, I'm fairly physically adept and I just generally feel comfortable.

The half day of pool skills for scuba was *humbling* -- I felt like it was obvious that I was the *worst* of all of us.  I couldn't get orientation in the water.  I was scrambling, kicking, just generally looking like a fish out of water.  My weighting was off, constantly.  I was regularly struggling against the pool bottom (I scraped the shit out of my pedicure and knees).  My deep breathing (thanks yoga and running) made it difficult for me to hover, because I'd fully inflate and deflate my lungs on each breath resulting in multiple feet of travel up and down in very shallow or only partially deep pools (apparently, I should have just been "sipping" air but they don't give this instruction generally because most people hyperventilate and need to be told to breathe deeply to counteract this instinct -- Runners, note -- SIP, watch your elevation in the water and use it to advise your breathing if you aren't doing anything that actually requires oxygen -- baby breaths are *fine*).

I went to bed last night committed to doing my best to getting my open water certification but wondering why people do this for fun.

In particular, so many of the safety skills were like torture.  Filling your facemask underwater and then clearing it was particularly difficult for me, for some reason.  Others seemed to be able to do it in 1 move, but I took 3 or 4 clearing efforts (until I learned a different technique, if you are me, one hand against the top of the mask and a quick tip of the head up and back and semi-harsh full exhale is best). 

During the pool skills section, at multiple times, because I couldn't manage where I was floating/sinking, etc., my stress levels sky-rocketed and I had trouble reminding myself to breathe through the regulator  (the magical thing that allows you to breathe underwater but counteracts *all* of my previous life experiences as a diver and swimmer that say you can't breathe underwater, and you should hold your breathe and *definitely* you should not breathe when there's water in your nose -- spoiler alert, thanks to regulator technology you can totally breathe underwater when there is water in you nose.  CRAZY.). 

At one point during the mask clearing exercises in the pool, I developed a sudden and very severe headache in the back of my neck/head.  It was bad enough that I came up to the surface from the pool (aka, admitted failure and opted out of the class for a while) and the training master diver followed, asking me what was wrong.  I explained the pain I was having and he suggested that perhaps I didn't have enough weight and was straining my neck during some of the skills.  This seemed reasonable, so I reentered the pool, tried to relax my neck and finished the skills, albeit with a headache that never went away. 

When getting back to the room, I looked in the mirror and realized I had very red and swollen eyeballs (if you've never seen fluid filled eyeballs where the eye matter moves as you blink like a water-bed, you are lucky), clearly in a full-on allergic reaction to how chlorinated (or whatever) the pool was. 

Turns out, all of the safety skills we'd been practicing required my eyes to be open in the water (clearing 1/2 full mask, clearing full mask, swimming with regulator and no mask, etc.). The headache was almost certainly a combo of the stress of breathing through the regulator while underwater, often with water in my nostrils, and the allergic response my body mounted through my eyeballs.  Good times.

One of the most important skills they want you to demonstrate when getting scuba certified is hovering.

If you are a big lunged, deep-breathing trained (hello yoga, running, stress control) person, hovering is a difficult thing (or if you are me, just straight up impossible).  The trick is, if you are like me, despite what the videos and training tells you, don't take anywhere close to full breaths to hover.  When people on scuba training videos say you need to breathe deeply, for hovering, they don't mean running/yoga deeply, they mean something more like, take a small breath.

And then, the next day we headed out for open water dives 1 and 2.  It was *very* choppy.  Of the 5 students in our group who went out that day, only 1 didn't puke.  It was a rough day.  And yet, thanks to support from E (who is the best diving buddy, previously certified years ago, but going through the motions with me now) I got through all the assigned skills of the day, and even spent just under an hour under water over 2 dives plus a bunch of surface skills.  It was pretty great, despite the chaotic day of all the sick classmates.

That night, after only 1 day of diving in rough conditions, with 1 day left before we finished. I think I surprised E when I asked if he wanted to consider staying in Koh Tao and getting our advanced certification.  We had already planned to do some fun dives after our open water cert, but I had come to recognize what a great instructor we had lucked into.  I also recognized that I was *definitely* still facing down some serious fears while diving, which were totally different from the traditional fears I know how to face (the, it's all my own fault/control fear of I'm scared of this dive/vault/skill, but my coaches say I am ready and I have no one but myself to blame if it goes wrong, vs. the this-is-totally-out-of-my-control fear of oh-shit, weather, water, current, etc).

We agreed that given how great our instructor was, it made sense to continue our training and focus on improving skills (even though they would be more work and less fun than just fun diving).

So, my friends, this is how this very non-natural scuba diver is signed up for an advanced certification.  Wish me well!

January 19, 2017

Singapore & Malaysia

Shopping on Orchard Road -- Classic Singapore
Our Singapore visit was a typical episode in what I've jokingly started referring to as our Hyatt Asia Tour. We have built up a ton of Hyatt points over the years, and Asia is a good place to deploy them. Each Hyatt we've been, whether it's been purely on points (free!) or on points and cash (super discount) has been wonderful thus far, and we'll likely continue with the pattern until we run out of spare points.
Singapore Marina -- yes, that is a giant ship (casino) on top of those three towers

We took the super cheap/budget airline JetStar from Manila to Singapore.  Booking online didn't go through.  I had to call a call center to get a human who walked me through the booking process and shunted me to a dial-tone interface that charged some annoying additional fee to get the CC authorization to actually clear (but really it was the extra 2 hours on the internet and phone trying to figure out how to make it all work that hurt the most).  Finally, we had reservations, but what we learned was that unlike the high-priced South American airlines, that you can just book online with no problem, the low-price SouthEast Asian airfares definitely extract some pain before you get them to let you travel.

Darn it -- we just missed the Pokemon Run!

We showed up at the Manila airport and were pleased to get seats assigned next to one another despite the warning that since we'd booked the lowest class, we would be assigned at random and most likely not near each other.  I really felt like these folks needed to take the aggressive nickle and diming down a notch and take a page from the Southwest manual -- just let 'em board and sort it out. But that's probably some culturally insensitive feeling on my part.

After arriving and clearing customs, I offered E some gum and made him laugh hysterically (while he took it and joined me in chewing with an evil grin) because, *UMM IT'S SINGAPORE -- IX-NAY ON THE THE UM-GAY!* Oh.  Right.

We took an Uber (have we praised Uber enough on the travels yet?) to our hotel.  It was easy and wonderful.  First Singapore dinner was Din Tai Fung.  Spicy noodles, shrimp/pork soup dumplings, sticky rice with pork, and most importantly, NO WAIT.  I am a happy 2-DTF-visits-in-2-weeks woman.
Saturday afternoon border crossing at Singapore Woodlands.

Morning was yet another visit to yet another glorious Hyatt gym, followed by lunch at level 33, a walk to the Merlion, the National Gallery, Singapore Slings at Raffles, and dinner with parents of a friend at the gorgeous downtown flat they've had for 40 years.  The next day we gorged at the Grand Hyatt buffet breakfast, which was the most ridiculous buffet breakfast we've ever seen including stations for Korean, Japanese, Dim sum, Congee, Noodles, Western egg/meats, Western baked goods and donuts, preserved meats/fish, waffles, pancakes, fresh fruit, juice, cereal, yogurts, grains and more (eventually free, after some annoying fighting with the front desk over communication confusion -- not ideal, we weren't even that hungry, didn't eat that much, and would have skipped it if we thought they were going to charge us, but it worked out in the end and they didn't).
Bit of a culture shock to move from the Singapore Hyatt to a JB mid-range hotel (view out our window).

We spent the afternoon at the pool, and then we cleaned and packed up, and took our backpacks on the SMRT to woodlands, then 950 bus to the woodlands crossing from Singapore into Johor to get stamped out of Singapore immigration, then the 950 bus to Johor Bahru where we did immigration into Malaysia (what country, exactly, were we in between the Singapore Woodlands crossing and the Malaysian Johor crossing?), followed by walking chaos through Johor Bahru to our hotel.
Food hawkers across the street from our hotel in JB, easy walk from the train station.

Hotels lie in this part of the world.  Our hotel in JB had no lounge.  No gym.  No breakfast (which we don't really care about, but coffee is nice.)  Several others in the area the Internet claimed had lounges/bars/places to relax open to public, and yet after traipsing about and trying to gain entrance once we realized our hotel didn't, it turns out, all the others didn't either.  So we made a dinner at the hawkers which was surprisingly good, winning the award of the cheapest meal out of the trip ($1 US for me and $2 US for E), as well as actually being spicy enough to make E comment that his Sambal Squid dish was actually "very spicy."

My delicious $1 Kuey Teow soup from the the hawker stall.
The next morning we took the 5 hour train (2.5+2 with 30 min transfer at Gemas) to Kuala Lumpur --we bought some junk food at the JB train station to sustain us.  Rotiboys were surprisingly buy 4 get 1 free, so despite thinking I'd bought 2 each for the day, we had all you see plus 4 *more* Rotiboys (2 plain, 3 amazing salted/sweet buttermilk custard filled).

I predict Rotiboy (amazing halal roti pastries) will become a worldwide sensation like DTF.

JB and KL were an amazing cultural mix -- It was the first time I've been in a Muslim majority environment where I felt comfortable in my own clothes.  There were plenty of Indian and Chinese women wearing clothes that were close enough to mine (showing neck, shoulders, legs, etc.) that I didn't constantly feel self-conscious or rude.  
Cranes actually do do that crazy 1-leg thing from Karate Kid!
In KL we did the obligatory stuff, got accidentally lost in malls while trying to navigate on foot (this just happens in Asia for us), visited the Petronas towers, ate on Jalan Alor, visited the amazing KL bird park (outdoor netted/doorlocked aviary) and took advantage of the awesome KL Hyatt.

Petronas towers at night from the wonderful park below.
 And then, after 2 nights, it was time to take a plane to Thailand (the $60 AirAsia flight was surprisingly pleasant and much less ghetto than the $90 Jetstar flight from Manila to Singapore).
Pelicans, egrets, and other birds feeding on the post-eagle feeding scraps.

January 17, 2017


We left Taiwan for Manila.

Modified Jeeps left by the US from WW2 make up the public transit Jeepneys.

It was a bit of a shock.

The airport was as we'd expect, but then, when we got to our hotel, they had mad security theater.  Like dogs and asking the taxi to pop the trunk so they could sniff our bags and mirrors under the car before you could get to the drop-off and removal of your big luggage for "X-ray" screening before they sent it up to your room, and a metal detector for you and your hand luggage before you went in the hotel, etc. Of course, half of this stuff wasn't in effect the next morning when we went down to take a taxi to our Chinatown food tour -- just there at the high-percentage check-in hours, to make people feel better.  Ridiculous.

Headed into the old Spanish walled city -- Intramuros.

We'd already researched the statistics and anecdotal reports of long-term travelers -- Manila was nothing more dangerous than half the places we'd been in South America.  And yet, the drama!  In fairness, compared to the rest of Southeast Asia, maybe the Phillipines *are* scary, but not when you compare it with the rest of the world...

Fort Santiago, Intramuros

We'd skipped Venezuela and Brazil entirely due to the crime data (and a desire to avoid introducing Portuguese into the all-Spanish trip), and learned after the fact that perhaps we should have considered skipping Baltimore (went through on the road trip) as well.  Either way, if you look, you'll see nothing in the Philippines but 4 US cities on the list of top 50 murder cities per capita.  Yet in those US cities and in other cities in South America which are likely much less safe, no one exhibits even close to the level of paranoia and security theater they exhibit in Manila.

If you're interested in more of the comparisons between backpacking in Southeast Asia and South America -- I recommend you check out this great blog post.

Fried tofu dish on the Binondo food wok (pun theirs, not mine).

In other news, we had a truncated stay in the Philippines.  We took a day of downtime in the hotel which was awesome.  We took a food tour of Binondo (oldest chinatown outside of China), followed by a self-guided tour of Intramuros and Fort Santiago and the Rizal museum.  It was hot, humid and rainy.  The weather in the region called for continued thunderstorms and our goals were hiking, beaching, boating -- none of which looked promising.

Salted Duck Egg Custard Buns -- phenomenal!

So after researching various island destinations (all with bad weather) we decided to leave the Philippines and head for Singapore (where we could do some indoor sight-seeing).  We agreed that we'd definitely love an opportunity to come back for a longer visit to the Philippines some day.

January 13, 2017

Taiwan, Revisited

Sunrise view of Taipei 101 from our Elephant Mountain hike.

We hadn't been to Taiwan since 2008, and most of Taiwan felt the same (except for cell phone culture).  We did laundry at a blessed self-service laundromat within walking distance of the Grand Hyatt and it was completely reasonable, like less than 2 hours and less than $15 US to do 7 days of laundry for both of us.  I think I may be leaning towards rating countries on the basis of the laundry situation, mediated by food, and if so, Taiwan is top tier!

Even though I hadn't studied it in 2 years, my erstwhile Mandarin efforts proved helpful.  I could tell servers that we didn't speak Mandarin and needed an English menu; I could apologize; and I could sort of communicate things like here, there, stop, go, want this address, etc. to cab drivers.  After Korea, I was amazed at just how helpful this basic non-existent level of language was versus literally *nothing*.

Hard to tell, but those crowds are all in line for dumplings at Din Tai Fung.

On our first morning's sunrise hike up Elephant Mountain, I listened to the extremely impressively healthy old-folks yell at one another while they vigorously hiked, ran, swung from side to side, used the public free weights, and slapped themselves on their bodies as part of their bizarre, but apparently very effective workouts (judging from their appearances).  The language they yelled back and forth reminded me how to listen to the tones and many things I'd forgotten.  Zao!  Qiang! and my favorite -- Meiguoren, ma? (yes, we are crazy Americans hiking at dawn with all of you who so kindly greet us in English with "Good Morning!" or "Have a nice day!" and occasionally, "Do you need help?")

One of the big treats in Taipei was meeting up with Jen for some shopping at Sogo.  I love meeting up with people we know from our non-travel life when we're traveling.  There's something so improbable and shocking about the fact that it even happens that makes me super grateful to be alive at a time when things like this are possible. 

This Big Cock Pineapple Cake was for sale all over the place -- confusing, to say the least.
One of our nights in Taipei, we went back to the Taipei 101 teppanyaki restaurant of such a great story from almost 9 years ago. We sat around 6 pm and enjoyed a delicious meal.  We shared our grill with randoms, but no one remotely as interesting as our hosts the previous time -- I considered this the ideal outcome -- I don't think my liver could handle the situation we encountered before.

One day, we walked to the original Din Tai Fung location to try to get lunch.  MISTAKE.  Lunch time a this location is a madhouse of tour groups and others all standing in crowds blocking the sidewalk.  I was too hungry from a gym-based workout and the 2 miles of walking to wait for what would likely be several hours, so we went to a local option around the corner and had perfectly delicious non-famous xiao long bao without any wait at all.

Shilin night market's indoor basement with stalls and seating -- our favorite.
The next day, we went to the Taipei 101 branch of Din Tai Fung, and arrived shortly after they opened, for a 5 minute wait. We were served quickly and left by 12:20, by which time the wait had extended to 40 minutes and would likely only get longer as the day went on.  I confirmed that I *love* DTF, but not enough to wait much more than 30 minutes (at least now that I've had it recently). 

That is one happy man with many fried crabs!
After DTF lunch, that night, we went to the Shilin night market for dinner.  E was thrilled to realize you could order deep fried baby crabs.  We also had shrimp wontons in spicy sauce and some sauteed greens.  It was a delicious (and very economical) meal -- arguably one of the best we've had on the Asia trip thus far.

Another great meal at Miaokou: E selected one of the huge tentacles and it was sliced, grilled, and sauced.

We ate it in the street from the plastic bag, and it was delicious.
We spent 2 wonderful nights in Keelung (Jīlóng) -- one visiting temples and Miaokou Night Market and the next day doing the bus trip to and from Jiufen in order to enjoy the narrow alleys, delicious foods, and sip on a beer in a teahouse overlooking the ocean through the rain.

One of the many narrow stairways in Jiufen.
And then, 6 days and 5 nights after we arrived, we said goodbye to Taiwan until next time and took a plane to Manila.

January 8, 2017

2016 Books Wrap up

As I've mentioned before, one of the surprising developments for me this Sabbatical year is that visually reading is actually very hard to fit in.  In my dreams, I'd double or even triple my visual reading while traveling.  Now I wonder exactly when I thought I'd be doing this, and what I'd be missing out on while doing so.

Between making the most of the locations where we find ourselves, language study, geographical and infrastructure research and just general life management, I haven't really found much time to read much other than travel resources during the sabbatical.  The last couple of visually read books I haven't written about in 2016 were book 8 (Matter) and book 9 (Surface Detail) in the Culture Novel Series.  I enjoyed them both immensely, and now I'm making my way through book 10, which is the last.  It's a nice juxtaposition to consider how "foreign" our travel on earth is to us on a daily basis vs. how "foreign" the various worlds/Universes/situations the Culture novels describe would be.  When I'm back to a fixed location life, I'll likely seek out books 4-6 in the series, which weren't available on Kindle.  If you think you'd like the Culture Novels, here's a nice detailed overview.

In contrast to taking the time to look down and read, audiobooks have been much easier to consume while traveling.  On the US/Canada roadtrip, E & I often listened an hour or so on each long drive stretch.  While traveling internationally, I listen to my audiobooks when visiting the gym, running, or walking solo (particularly when back in the US on visits).

2016 totals are 22 visual books and 32 audiobooks, both down quite a bit from 2015 (29 visual books and 48 audiobooks) - so, if there's one thing I'm looking forward to about returning to my normal life, it's reading and enjoying more books than I do while traveling.  For those of you who are interested, all of my previous books posts can be found here, and the remaining 2016 audiobook reviews are below.

A Good Man is Hard to Find and other stories
Flannery O'Connor
Good road trip enjoyment.  Harsh character portrayals of southerners by this classic American author.  I would *never* want to be subject to her written description.  Her turns of phrase for physical descriptions as well as her command of dialect are entertainingly impressive.
The Crossing
Michael Connelly
A nice twist in the Lincoln Lawyer/Harry Bosch series -- Harry is on leave from LAPD and his brother convinces him to act as his investigator in a defense case trying to clear a convicted felon of murder.  Great LA background, legal theory, thriller material, etc.
The P.G. Wodehouse Collection
P.G. Wodehouse
We listened to these stories (many of them the classic "Jeeves" tales of the clever butler and his addled leisure-life British employer living in New York in the 1920s) on our roadtrip and found them very enjoyable.  The humor is super dry and ascerbic.
Still Life: Inspector Gamache, Book 1
Louise Penny
It started with a desire to find a new audiobook set in some of the places we'd be driving on our road trip and it developed into my newest mystery series obsession.  Ms. Penny has created the absolutely lovely imaginary village of 3 pines populated full of Anglos in Quebec near the US border.  Inspector Gamache and his team are the french-speaking murder team of the Surete de Quebec who come to town to investigate a suspicious death.  Simple but wonderful character development, scenery, and portrayal of the modern day tension between the Anglophone and Francophone communities in Quebec.  Some credit Ms. Penny with reviving the classic style of murder mystery originally popularized by Agatha Christie -- I see the parallels and agree, and I read almost if not all of Agatha Christie's works as a child, so I'm guessing I'll be doing the same with Ms. Penny.
The world's best classic short stories
Various: Poe, Wilde, Saki, Chopin, Hardy, Kipling, etc.
A great exposure to shorter works of some of the most well-known English/American authors, many of whom I've never read.  We made it about halfway through the collection before arriving in Atlanta, so we may revisit the remainder on our drive back to California next Summer, but who knows.
Fatal Grace: Inspector Gamache, Book 2
Louise Penny
More of 3 pines.  Great character expansion and continuity of background from the first book plus stereotypical puzzle-mystery unfolding.  Ruth Zado, the local poet is a composite wonderfully bitter curmudgeonly character whose lyrics contain influences from Atwood and no doubt other Canadian poets I am unacquainted with -- I do love me some poetry in my prose, even in my murder mysteries where possible. The Cruelest Month: Inspector Gamache, Book 3

The Cruelest Month: Inspector Gamache, Book 3
Louise Penny
Still more of 3 Pines and I can't still can't get enough.  Seances. Haunted Houses.  Easter.  And, of course, a murder mystery.
A Rule Against Murder: Inspector Gamache, Book 4
Louise Penny
Inspector Gamache and his wife are celebrating their anniversary at the Manoir Bellchance and a murder occurs.  An entirely new character set and scenery, for the most part, and yet, I still love this book and this series.  
The Brutal Telling: Inspector Gamache, Book 5
Louise Penny
Back to 3 Pines for some shocking revelations about characters you thought you knew and, of course, another murder mystery.  The townsfolk make some tongue-in-cheek comments regarding how unlikely it is that their tiny town should be the site of so many murders in such a short time, but other than that, the magical realism elements continue to preserve 3 pines as the wonderfully perfect location it has been thus far.  Continued character development for some of my favorites (including Gamache) as well as the introduction of some memorable new ones make continuing with this series an even better pleasure than the Agatha Christie tales to which Ms. Penny's works are compared.
Bury Your Dead: Inspector Gamache, Book 6
Louise Penny
A split tale, with Inspector Beauvoir back in 3 pines while Gamache is passing time in Old Quebec after an unfortunate accident.  Perhaps the most complex of the books in the series thus far, with 2 concurrent investigations and historical look-back tale-telling of the accident.  Very well executed with the lovely 3 pines attraction remaining strong while characters continue to grow and evolve.