Nerdy Cat Scuba Travels

A Cat Lovin' Engineer taking a career break by traveling, doing a divemaster internship, and diving around the world

Category: Travels (page 1 of 3)

Experiences associated with traveling

The Dark Side of being a Digital Nomad – The Best and Worst

From Thailand to Seattle. Another great stay in the books. Summer is over in Seattle and it’s my queue to find a new home. I sell everything in my studio apartment and pack my belongings into 2 duffel bags, 1 carry on suitcase, and a couple of ikea bags.  The fun exciting part of working online, is being able to explore new cities while working. It’s always fun to tell a story about going to Austin, Texas on a whim or deciding to move to the Canary Islands.

The Biggest Downers of Nomadic Life

Work anywhere. Anytime. Freedom. No one tells you about the downers of being a digital nomad. You only hear about all the different cities you can live in and the flexibility in schedule. Over the year I have appreciated all the benefits of being a nomad, but I have yet to acclimate to the downside.

My Top 4 Annoyances in being a Wanderer

Traveling Light

Each time I go to the mall, I resist the urge to shop. To buy something fun. Fashionable. If I pick a shirt, it has to have a specific purpose. Does it last? Will it go with multiple seasons? Can I fit it into my luggage? Is it wearable 50 + times in a year? Wouldn’t it be nice to just buy something nice for myself once in a while? The answer is: no. There is no where to place it.

Forget about cute houseware items. Bedsheets. Towels. Only essentials travel to the next location.

Falling out of a Routine

That favorite bar. A beloved restaurant. A muay thai gym. Finding my favorite ice cream shop. Each place I grow to love will eventually turn into a memory.  I try to not to ache for the past when I move to a new location. My routine will change and so will all my “go to” spots around the neighborhood. I’m constantly packing and unpacking.

Anxiety

Once I decide to leave a city, anxiety starts to settle in. Finding a new place to live. A place to work out. Is there Wifi? Meeting new people. Will I make new friends?

As the departure date nears, I am filled with both excitement and fear. Excited to explore, but fearful that I will be lonely and without friends. Did I earn enough money monthly to keep a comfortable lifestyle? I make long checklists of all the items I need to complete before moving.

Saying Goodbye to people

Perhaps the worst feeling about being a nomad is missing people. Friends and family.

After living in Seattle for 6 months, I really had to think hard about whether or not stay. I really loved all my Seattle friends. I got into the groove. Sunday Brunches. Bar Hopping. Chilling at a Park. What if I stayed and made this my home? I tell myself not to do this, because the entire reason I left my engineering job in Santa Monica was to explore. Being a nomad means trying new things. Thinking about friends will only make it harder to move.

The Best Part of Being a Traveler?

New places. New faces. Each time I move to a new location, I am realizing how fortunate I am to have a job that allows me to move anywhere. Sure, there are days where I am lonely and anxious. But that’s a feeling I am willing to have in trade of adding a new experience in life. It’s rare to have the opportunity in my 30’s to be unattached. No Stressful Job. No kids. There’s never going to be a better time to travel.

The reality of moving

First week. New scenery, new places. I feel like I’m the luckiest person in the world. Instagram is on point.

The second week I find myself calling home and FaceTiming my close friends and family. It’s great explaining the new home, new job, new friends. In the back of my heart there is a small pain. I miss them. I miss having that camaraderie. I push the feelings away and replace it with busy work. Each day is filled to the brim with activities. I find a scuba diving shop. I find a new gym. One needs to keep moving to keep from drowning. I know if I stay at home I will miss Seattle. I realize there’s no turning back now.

I’m not going to lie… being a nomad is hard. There are days where I wonder if I made the right choice. Why would I move to a city where I don’t have family or friends?

Is it worth it? 

Without inserting a cliche quote about life… I will say this. I chose to leave engineering and Santa Monica for a reason. I can either embrace it or not.  Right now, I’m embracing it. What’s not to like about living on an Island with great weather, food and people?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Travel Emergencies And Trip Interruptions

Departure

Saturday 23rd of September The itinerary is  OAK -> OSLO -> Tenerife, Canary Islands.

On the first leg from Oakland to Oslo, the flight attendants announced:

“Attention Ladies and Gentlemen, please ring your call button if you are a medical professional.”

Like Little gophers, heads pop up around the plane to see if someone around the area was sick. Nothing out of the ordinary in the Economy Section.
A few hours later, the captain announces:

“Attention Ladies and Gentlemen as you know we have a medical emergency. At this time, we have determined that this a serious issue and will make a diversion and land in Edinburgh. Flight attendants prepare for arrival. We apologize for this inconvenience. We ask that everyone stay seated until the paramedics have left the airplane.”

Within forty minutes, we landed and taxied over to a gate where an ambulance and a police car stood waiting. The next moment, the siren and lights turn on. The ambulance and the police escort take off.

What Happens if your flight has a Medical Emergency

Once the passenger left, I thought we would reverse and take off again. Not True.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, the passenger has exited the plane. The cargo crew is now searching to remove the passenger’s luggage before we depart. Please standby.”

Another forty minutes. As each minute goes by, the chances of making my connecting flight closes. I look out the window. It’s a cloudy day in Scotland. The rain on the window distorts the view. I try to sleep, but it’s too bright outside.
I get out of my seat and stretch. Passengers start talking about connecting flights. Looks like I’m not the only one that will be stuck in Oslo. The flight map on the screen no longer counts down to the final destination. The globe just keeps spinning and stopping at Edinburgh.

In the next announcement, the captain tells everyone we need to refuel. He asks everyone to stay seated but to unbuckle your seatbelt. Good thought. If the plane catches on fire, I don’t want to be buckled in.

2 hours in Edinburgh, the cargo crew has found the passenger’s luggage, the plane is full up on gas, a new flight plan is logged and we are on the way to Oslo. The flight to Oslo is only 90 minutes away. I click on the flight map and see the location time 16:45. My flight left at 15:30. So much for meeting my co-workers tonight.

Ding. The seatbelt light turns off. People jump into the aisles. It’s a rush to get out of the plane. I feel the American Stress vibe.

We debark the plane and take a long walk to immigration.
The other passport queue has two women working the booth. I proudly show my visa.

OH, yes! I will be living here. Yes! I will be working here. Hello, EU! Hello, free health insurance! Goodbye Trump. Goodbye “Take Back America” people.

I miss my connection. I pick up my luggage and head over to Norwegian customer service.  Here’s my passport. The man at the counter starts typing. A LOT. It’s not looking good.

There are no more flights to Tenerife tonight. There are no available flights tomorrow. Instead, he offers a flight to Barcelona. I can sleep in a hotel there and then fly to Tenerife tomorrow.
He prints out some boarding passes and then casually says, you might have to get off the plane at Bilbao. Bilbao? Turns out, I now have to fly to Barcelona, then Bilbao, then to Tenerife.

I call my new co-workers and inform them of my delay. My amazing new school co-workers had planned to pick me up and take me out to dinner and host me at their house for one night. So much for that. I spend the next 18 hours in a daze. I arrive Barcelona around midnight. Norwegian Air gives me a voucher for a taxi and hotel.  I drag myself to the hotel. Its a NH 5 star hotel. A nice surprise.

The room is a bit smokey despite being a smoke-free hotel. The kitchen is closed because I arrive so late into the night. I order a giant breakfast to be served at 5 am. About 3.5 hours of sleep later, I wake up to room service with a cart full of food. Eat. Taxi. Flight

Travel Insurance

I call Chase Sapphire Reserve and Norwegian Air. I find out that “medical emergency landings” are not covered. If the flight had been delayed by weather, I could have received up to 600 euros in compensation with the EU laws. However, this was caused by another passenger, so the airlines do not have to compensate.
My credit card insurance only refunds and credits pre-paid expenses. So I don’t get any charity there either. I feel a small twinge of anger from the delay. But then again, I don’t have anywhere to be.
European Compensation
What qualifies for a compensation? Let’s say you missed your connection.

Here are the types of delays that do NOT qualify for compensation:

  • Medical Emergency

  • Weather

  • ATC or strike by crew

Other than that, you can get 250 euros to 600 euros depending on the flight.

Priority Pass Lounge

Back to my misery. In the early morning, I fly from Barcelona to Bilbao. My layover is 2 hours. The airport is small and without any shops. I use my Priority Pass card to get into the VIP lounge. Its only 9 am, so I decide to skip the free booze. I must be getting old. I grab some perrier and fruit.
Wifi and all the snacks you can eat makes the two hours fly by. Finally, I am on my way to Tenerife. Three more hours.

Canary Islands

The Canary Islands are part of Spain, but not like Spain. People here pay fewer taxes, have cheaper gas and cheap gas. The lifestyle is even more relaxed than the mainland. I wheel out my baggage and find a bus to Puerto De La Cruz pretty easily. For 13.55 euros, I take an hour bus ride to the city by the sea. Once there, I put on my duffel bag and wheel my two carry-on suitcases and laptop bag around the bus station. Sweat clings to my back. My face is dripping wet, and my sunglasses keep fogging up. I say forget it. I want to the taxi queue. Pension Silene Orotava hotel por favor. 4 men start speaking Spanish trying to figure out the directions.

5 minutes later, they all agree on the route and we hop in. Another 8 euros I’ve arrived at my final destination.

Total travel time…. 36 hours. Was it worth it? Have a look for yourself…

Top Hipster Things to do in Seattle – Pacific Northwest

Welcome to Seattle. We should hang out. Maybe.

Is Seattle the land of passive aggressive friendships? Is it the weather that gives Seattle locals a bad rap?

At first look one would think Seattle is full of hipsters, but then I realize they aren’t hipsters, they just have beards and flannels on.

Powering Through the Awful Weather

Grey Skies don’t mean a thing. I’m embracing outings with college buddies, making new friends and even doing things solo.

Anytime a local has recommended something, I’ve jumped. Concert? Yes! Hike? Yes! Coffee? Yes! Since quitting my “real job” I’ve tried to stay active regardless the day of the week.

Top 6 things I’ve done in Seattle that aren’t your typical Lonely Planet’s Recommendations

  1. Driving out of Seattle.

Ask anyone and they will say the landscape is what makes this place beautiful and unique. On most days, the clouds will hide the mountain ranges around the city. Based on a local recommendation, I drove out to Deception Pass State Park.

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Since It’s spring time, I made a quick stop in La Connor to see the Daffodils bloom. Acres of beautiful yellow flowers. I imagine any local man could take a person here for a movie –esque proposal.

The most visited state park in Washington. Its got a perfect combination of giant trees and hidden trails for hiking, Cook out spaces on the beach, navy jets roaring around the Naval Air station Whidbey Island, and countless breathtaking views.

  1. Live Music.

It seems like every other week there is another band in town.  Seattle has many local convert venues. I’m able to walk / bus to different venues without worrying about parking or uber.  In Los Angeles, oftentimes, shows are sold out or just far away enough to deter me from going.  So far I’ve been able to see The XX, RJD2, and Powers.

  1. Pioneer Square.

Most people visit Pike’s Place Market, but I would say the real hidden gem is Pioneer Square. Its Seattle’s first original neighborhood. The first place to host an artwalk in the US. The neighborhood reminds me of what San Francisco was like in the late 90’s. Filled with young people going to work, occasional tourists, and homeless people. Every First Thursday of the month, the area features an Art Walk. Intrigue Chocolate Co. does a great job on these art walks melting down all their truffles to create a free sipping chocolate for visitors.

  1. Edmunds Underwater Park and Ferry.

Of course no list would be complete without a scuba spot.  If you scuba dive, I highly recommend this spot. Not just because I volunteer here, but because it’s a great example on how scuba divers can make any location a diving location. Bruce Higgins has spent 40 years adding different structures to this park for divers. Each week I help to pull cinder blocks into the water to create trails for divers. The site has grown so large that the cinder block trails have morphed into streets. The sunden wooden boats have deteriorated and provided lots of carbon food for the wild life. I’ve seen link cod with heads larger than mine.

In case you don’t scuba dive,  you can walk along the beach and then drive onto the ferry for a quick trip across the bay to Kingston. Each ferry costs less than $10. You simply drive onto the boat, park and enjoy the ride. I parked, and took a walk around the ferry. There’s a great viewing spot at the top of the boat, along with a cafeteria.

  1. Spring Time – Cherry Blossoms in Seattle.

If you are lucky enough to visit Seattle in March/April, I would take advantage of all the cherry blossoms around town.  University of Washington has a great quad that highlights the bloom. Most don’t talk about the history of these cherry trees, but a local told me some interesting stuff. The first trees were planted just before WW2 (1939).  3 years later, 400 Japanese American students were sent to internment camps.  Most recently, 18 new trees from Japan were added in 2014.

Outside of the university, I found that my Capitol Hill / First Hil neighborhood is filled with Cherry Trees. Pink Blooms, White Ones, Reddish flowers. The rain doesn’t seem so bad with a pink backdrop. I know I’m not in California anymore when I spend 45 minutes walking in the rain without minding it.

  1. Museum of Pop Culture

A nerd’s dream come true. I spent 3 days at this museum. Each installation struck a cord in my inner nerd being. Here are some of the exhibits featured:

Horror Movies – The art behind what makes something scary. See props from Friday the 13th, Hostel and other movies. Watch clips of the Exorcist and see why it’s the scariest movie ever.

Fantasy – (Magic, Lord of the Rings, the Hobbit)

Invention of Games and Independent Games – Watch interviews, play games, interact with

Born in Seattle, Jimi Hendrix’s career was short but intense. This exhibit features information on his rise to fame as well as his journal.

Interactive Music Sessions ( Guitar, Drums, singing, Mixing, Turntables, singing): I spent 10 minutes pretending to be a DJ with a complete lesson on how to “scratch.”

Sci-Fi Movies – Fifth Element, Star Trek, Star Wars, Men in Black clothing and movie props.

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Enjoy it while it Lasts

I don’t know how long I will stay here, nor do I know where I will go next. But as long as I am here, I will continue to enjoy the live music. Coffee. New and Old Friends.

 

Until Next Time…

 

What My Rescue Diving Course Didn’t Teach Me

Are you sure its a dead body?

Yup- this was a thought in my head this weekend. In my rescue diving course and my divemaster course, I learned so much about reacting in a calm manner to distress calls. Methodically performing CPR in the ocean, disassembling a diver’s gear, dragging them out of the water. What I didn’t expect was what happens in the real world. What happens when someone is dead in the water?

During the Rescue Course – Lifting Heavy People

Lets be honest, I’m about 5’ 4”, and about 130 lbs; most divers outweigh me. During my divemaster course, I cried because I failed during my first attempt. The cold water. The heavy “volunteers”. I couldn’t calm down and rescue them. Sobbing because I wasn’t strong enough. Was it unfair that I went last? I was exhausted. Boo hoo on me.  Eventually I got over feeling sorry for myself and passed with out issue.  It felt great knowing I could actually rescue someone in distress. I think it was this experience that helped me prepare for Saturday.

Edmunds Underwater Park

It was a calm Saturday and the skies were clear and bright blue. For a change, I decided to bring my weights to the bench by the beach. No rhyme or reason. Just changing things up.

Then I heard it. A LOUD whistle from the ocean. Someone waving their arms in distress.I look around, no one else is immediately around me.  I call out to them- “Are you ok?!” They show me an OK, but then continue to wave at me.

Adrenaline pumping. I look around. A woman and her son on the beach are looking at the divers. I ask her to “zip” me up so I can swim up to them. She zips my drysuit closed. I tell her to call 911.

I pace over to my hood, gloves, fins and mask. My hands are shaking.

Running into the ocean, I dive in. Water seeping into my suit… the zipper slightly open. I try to pull it shut, but there’s too much adrenaline. I forget about the wet cold feeling. It doesn’t matter now.

I get to the divers and there’s a man face down. Should turn him over and do CPR?

He responds “I think it’s a recovery.”

When a Rescue Dive becomes a Recovery

That’s when I realize it. This is a dead body. The man is half floating in the water. Body rigid. Fully clothed. Not a diver.

Without thinking I grab the man’s arm and help swimming him to shore.

He feels like a bag of cement. Strangely plastic.

The swim feels long and never ending. Firetruck sirens are getting louder. My heart is pumping so hard now. Keep swimming. Don’t stop. Get him to the shore.

Once in standing water. I throw off my fins into the waves.  We flip the man over. His arms frozen near his hips. Legs stiff. He still has his shoes on with the laces tied neatly. His eyes closed. We try to lift him, but he’s so heavy it as if we didn’t try at all.

The waves start crashing on the man’s face. Eyes flick open. Blood shot and empty gazing.  I gasp. I look down at his shoes instead.

Grabbing the shoes, I push hard towards the sand. We finally get him to the shore. EMT staff are waiting for us. They move him to a stretcher. I look away.

Exhaustion. I almost fall over. I can’t catch my breathe.

A policeman puts his shoulder around me. “Thank you for your help. Can you tell me what happened?”

“I know nothing. I just swam him to shore.”

Shaking- I walk over to the bench take off my hood and gloves and walk away. I go to see my friends and try not to think of the dead man.

Shortly afterwards, the authorities have moved the body off the shore and question the divers that found the body. He was in about 15ft of water, visible from the surface. Nothing else was in the water around him.

Later, a tow truck arrives and we find out that the man’s car was left in the parking lot. I google the story a few days later to find that the police suspect “suicide.”

Rest In Peace

I hope that this man found peace and comfort in his last moments.

Lessons Learned from my First Rescue Assist

  1. Practicing helps. If not for my previous strenuous course, I would not have been prepared to swim so far with such a heavy load.
  2. When a rescue dive turns into a recovery effort, you can pace yourself. Don’t exhaust yourself.
  3. Be respectful of the body. Don’t drag it or toss it around. This man just died. Be gentle and do what you would if it were your own family member.
  4. When you hear the distress call- don’t rush into the water. They teach this in the course, over and over. But it’s the #1 thing to remember. You can’t save anyone if you are drowning yourself.
  5. Second victim – I feel disconnected. I’m still at odds on what to feel. I didn’t discover the body, and I can’t imagine the affect that would have on a person.

In all, I’m thankful that I was trained properly. This was my first real world assist. I just wish it had a better outcome.

 

Until next time…

Moving to Washington Right Now

Coffee. Music. Flannel. Rain. The perfect combination to convince a hipster to relocate to Seattle. If you asked me a couple years ago if I would ever leave Santa Monica for Seattle, I would have laughed in your face.

Santa Monica vs Seattle

Santa Monica – Sunny skies. Permanent year round 70 deg F weather. The beach. Local shops. Three twins ice cream. A dream come true.

Seattle – A new opportunity. Pacific Northwest. Seasons. Snow. hiking spots. Beautiful skyline overlooking the water.

The Journey

It seems that I couldn’t have picked a better contrasting city to Santa Monica. I don’t know how long I will live here, however, I do feel the pressure to commit to a life of normalcy. Being a nomad is quite difficult when you have a cat and responsibilities.

Adios Santa Monica. I wake up at 8am. Have some coffee and pack up my car. I spend an hour trying to figure out how to use ratchet straps for the first time. Seriously doubting my engineering skills. So frustrated with my performance, I skip breakfast/lunch and drive. I manage to make only one stop on the drive up for gas and a bathroom break. I grab a bag of Organic Sweet Potato Purple Chips and bounce. Gotta Love hippie California.

I make it to San Jose within 6 hours. Not bad at all. I unload all my belongings into Wendy’s attic. My entire life now resides in a small crawl space area in vacuum seal bags. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Of course, nothing is easy. I start checking weather and the Doppler 4000 shows a storm front coming in. The swirl simulation doesn’t look good. Ice and snow. My s2000 isn’t exactly a snow mobile.

Family meeting. Wendy and Dad help make an executive decision. No S2000. Use the “Yellow school bus.” Yup. My stylish convertible sports car has been traded to my dad for his Yellow Xterra. 14-18 MPG. A small part of me dies inside.

Destination – Seattle (881 miles away)

Next morning, I wake up at 5 am and meet my Dad for a #1 egg mcmuffin meal at McDonalds. We hug and I take off. Let’s start the 10+ hours of podcasts please.

The weather is nice. Too nice. I drive quickly through northern California without anyone else really on the road. I make it Oregon and its chilly. No snow chain warnings.

I pull over in small city to get gas. Some lady comes to greet me. She’s going to pump my gas. I don’t know what to do with myself.

I take a bathroom break and grab a burger. I ask the clerk about the full service thing. He responds, “ You know. A governor didn’t like to pay the tax on pumping your own gas. So he banned it. Let’s me keep my job.” Um ok.

I tip the lady $2 and pray that I can have enough gas to make it to Washington without getting gas again.

Arriving in Washington

Washington State lines. Rain. The sun is setting and its starting to rain. I’ve been listening to podcasts for over 10 hours. I’m tired.

I start to call my friends and chit chat while driving. I should do this more often.

I get to Tacoma around 6:30pm. My new home is still a little more than hour away. I decide to crash at a friend’s house and call it a day. Sleep Now.

Morning. I pick up Jade from the Cat boarding facility and make it to my new digs. She’s meowing. Kinda pissed. Sorry Jade! It will all be ok, I promise.

Day 2. I wake up to see snow falling gently to the ground. A soft fluffy floor of snow all over the backyard. I’m debating whether or not I can drive. I call Dad. He says its safe. Done. I do some grocery shopping and errands.

Amazing. I’m in Seattle. In January I was living in Thailand, and now I’m here. In a parka. Most of this weather reminds me of Iceland. Time to dust off my thermals and gloves. Back in the cold North.
(Here’s some proof that I can survive in the cold. Throw back to my time in Iceland)

Hello Seattle.

 

 

 

Diving in Myanmar with Smiling Seahorse

At peace. That’s how I feel when I am underwater. Fishes swimming. Plants swaying to the swell of the ocean. Weightless. With only my air bubbles to tell me which way is up.

Outside of the water, I’m awkward. I don’t know what I want in life. I forgot something. Where am I going? Its too much to think about.  Diving is much easier.

My parents phoned me with hesitations in their voice. I imagine they think I’m venturing into Somalian pirated waters or something. Danger lurking over each wave. Is it safe? Where will you be? Is there cell service?

Yes, its safe. In the middle of nowhere. No connections to civilization whatsoever. No need to worry.

The Dive Group for Trip 3 – Hosted by the Smiling Seahorse

The Smiling Seahorse

MV Thai Sea – my home for the next 5 days. The owner, Frank, works as the dive instructor on the boat, and his wife does the business side. It’s a nice and small independent diving operation. The boat has room for 12 guests, with a ratio of 4 divers to one divemaster/instructor.

At first, I have my hesitations. I get on the boat and its French. Like Tres Tres Tres French. All the other divers minus one other diver- Choy, are French. Queue La Vie en Rose please.

Le Bienvenue speech. The Suisse dive instructor (Julien) translates. I’m somewhat irritated. My spoiled Americanness kicks in.  Why can’t everyone just speak English. Then I think about Trump and realize I’m being stupid. Relax.

The first night I’m a little cranky and shy, so I take some seasickness pills and go to sleep.

The next morning I wake up to the sound of “630! Dive briefing!”

I put on my swim suit and a shirt dress and head to the back of the boat. We form our groups and prepare for diving. Each day will follow this schedule -Dive. Eat Breakfast. Sleep. Dive. Eat Lunch. Sleep. Dive. Eat a snack. Relax. Dive. Eat Dinner. Drink.

The Dive Group: Me, Luc, Julien, Choy

A day later, I start warming up to my new French family. We exchange stories about all our travels and drink Richard, the drink of the Bordeaux French men. It’s Licorice tasting madness.  The 4 divers in their mid 50’s traveling sans wives brought a huge bottle of Richard for all to drink. The perfect recipe for laughter and fun. After some shots of Rum, a dance party with flashing lights forms on the top deck.

By the third day, all my stupid American prejudice about the French boat are gone. We exchange stories of the fish we see underwater while eating all the delicious treats the Thai team cooks for us. One day banana fritters and ice cream. Next Day, crepes with fruit.

Night falls and we jump in for another night dive. I float around flashing my light at fishes. A lonely barracuda passes by. I name him Mr.B. Mr.B is rather curious and swims towards me. Maybe a little too close. At first it feels fun, but now its makes me uneasy.   Circling me, I can feel his irritation.

My heart rate is up. I’m afraid to shine my light into the darkness. I’m unsure if I want to see Mr.B staring back at me. I swim over to my guide and hope that Mr.B disappears.

Moments later, Choy swims up next to me and Julian. He’s rubbing his shoulder. Forming a fist into a palm, Choy signals to me that a barracuda shoulder checked him. Or at least that’s what I interpret. It must be Mr.B. Like 2 young kids afraid to cross the street, we stay close to Julien and look both ways before swimming ahead.

Not seeing Mr.B anywhere, I start doing my own thing again. Rock here. Fish there. Mr.B. … WHAT? I quickly flash my light somewhere else. Swimming away,  scared.

A minute passes. I see a distant light shaking frantically. I swim over and Choy signals to me that he sees Mr.B again. We stay close together and search the seas. No sign of an imminent attack.

The dive ends and we pop up to the surface. Instantly we are two kids chatting to Julien about this barracuda. Julien laughs.

I have to laugh at myself. Like what is this fish going to do to me? I have a knife for Christ sake.  A big knife. One slice and its sashimi time.

The rest of the dives, we kept an eye out for Mr. B, but he must have found someone else to punk. Instead we saw more seahorses, octopus, puffer fish, and angel fish. Each time we circle reefs the song of the little mermaid pops into my head.  The schools of fish seem to freeze at times. Every clown fish is named Nemo. Every blue angel fish is named Dory.

Unable to explain the vastness of the sea, I’ll use my video to show my the rest of my trip experiences from under the sea:

Special Thanks to Luc for his photos and video. Thanks to Smiling Seahorse for providing such a great experience!

Who wants to go to Vietnam for 2 days?

Visiting Hanoi

A short $100 hop away from Bangkok. Reason to go? Coffee.

No really, I’ve been drinking this powered candy in Thailand that tastes like what coffee companies would make for kids if they wanted to get them interested early. Like those packs of gum that look like cigarettes. The complete look of a frothy cappuccino without the real punch. A piece of me dies each time I drink it.

Arriving to Hanoi airport around 9am, I order an uber and go to Old Town. The driver drops me off in the center of the city. Chaos. Frogger on Crack.

Crossing myself, I take a deep breath and go for it. I’m sure if I crossed a busy street like this in America without a cross walk someone would run me over. Over here, all the drivers seem to be on alert and slow down. After this crossing, everything else seems rather easy.

Its behind Here!

Like a speakeasy, the coffee shop is hidden in an alleyway behind some tailor. Once inside, the space opens up and you feel like you are inside, but outside at the same time. There’s a garden in the center of the house and the rooftop is open. A woman greets me and I already know what to order- “Ca phe sua da”. I walk up three or four flights of winding stairs to reach a beautiful roof top deck with a view of the lake. The first sip of caffeine gives me a new life.

Shortly after my relaxing coffee, I go to meet up with my couchsurfing host- Quynh. Vietnam is very affordable, so I didn’t need to really crash on someone’s couch, it was a means for me to make friends with locals. Sometimes traveling solo can be a bit lonely. Quynh recently got married and quit her job to start her own private tour company. Funny weekend. She told me she has to file a lot of paperwork to get the government to give her approval for her business. So for now she’s practicing with couchsurfing.

She takes me on her motorbike to Dai Kim and we eat Bun Cha. The meal was $1. Next, we go to Old Town. I walk about 6 miles wondering the streets in a mix of fake north face bags, nike gear, Hanoi shirts and souvenirs. Half way between my walk I decide to book at tour to Halong Bay for $30. My negotiation skills are pretty bad. Quynh stated that she pays 500,000 dong as a local, but I should expect to pay 700,000 dong. Later on the boat, I find out that everyone else paid 600,00 dong. Not that big of difference but still. American fail.  A

After Old town, we go to another coffee and get the famed” egg coffee” fantastic.

Halong Bay Tour for $30 – Is it worth it?

Halong Bay is about 3-4 hours bus ride away. As soon as I get on the bus, I’ve realized I booked the wrong tour. I sit in the back by the backpacking Brazilians. One of them has their flip flop off and their black dirty food dangling off his knee. Its constantly in the corner of my eye.

On the tour boat, I meet 2 Polish gay guys, 2 Koreans, and a Bosnian. We eat lunch together. We form a bond together when the guide tells me that my tour didn’t include a kayak tour because I didn’t pay extra. Everyone starts complaining for me. I simply tell him, I paid 100,000 dong extra than everyone else. So why doesn’t it include it? He finally gives up and throws me a coupon for kayaking. Saying- oh fine. Then take it. I would have skipped it, but I’m thankful that my new friends were sticking up for me.

We sail around the bay and take a trip into these beautiful caves. Since I’m on this crappy tour- my guide says nothing. So really I have no idea why there are caves at Halong Bay. I can’t tell you anything about it. James Bond movie. Thats about it.

A few hours later we finish the trip and start the long journey back.

Free City Tour Guide in Hanoi

The next day I have a private free tour around the city. Khanh Nguyen Phuong, or “Katie” for short, picks me up at 9am. We zip over to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum and watch the changing of the guards. She tells me about the greatness of Ho Chi Minh and how he liberated Vietnam. I’m scared to ask her questions about communism and the conflict between the people that left versus people that stayed. Nowadays, I’m sure the dynamics have changed. You can see capitalism everywhere. I mean, just look at my Halong Bay Tour.

Next, we go the house where Obama stayed during his visit. This giant yellow French Mansion was supposed to be the “White House” but Ho Chi Minh dubbed it too fancy and stayed at the house down the way. The “Uncle Ho” house.  The house he lived in is traditional Northern Vietnam style. Reminds me of some of the houses in Thailand. One thing Katie points out: All the clocks in his home are set to 9:47; the exact time he passed away.

At one point, Katie asks my age and gives the most shocked face response to me. I can’t tell whether she thinks I am younger, or if she is concerned to be so old traveling alone. I too would look in horror as an old maid traveling solo. I find out she’s only 22. She’s lived in the Hanoi area all her life and has never traveled abroad. She hasn’t even been to Halong Bay.

We go to a few more sites around the city: Temple of Literature and the Hoa Lo Prison. In the prison, there’s a section on USA POWs. The image and impression I got was that the time in these prison camps was filled with Christmas celebrations and men playing ping pong. All the the photos show Vietnamese helping John McCain and treating his broken bones. Katie called it the “Hanoi Hilton Prison.”  Really. Her tour included a 5 minute talk about how well Americans were treated in prison. Despite the fact the next room showed men in shackles and solitary confinement rooms. Can someone say propaganda much?

Even though I didn’t agree with the politics, the tour itself was really informative and I enjoyed Katie’s young and dedicated spirit. She is a college graduate in Interpretation and told me about the lengthy process on getting the job as a free tour guide, Lots of tests and interviews. She’s a little shy- but at the same time- is quick to yell at solicitors to get out here. Just hanging out with her makes me wish I was 22 again.

I didn’t really go into depth about the food. But really. Its insane on how good the food is here. Most of the time I spent about $1 a meal. For lunch alone, I ordered 4 dishes and began stuffing myself like a little Fois Gras Duck. Must eat everything.  Full of carbs, I felt accomplished and flew back to Bangkok.

Till next time Vietnam…

 

 

 

Siem Reap in 2 days or less | Top Travel Recommendations

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Siem Reap – Visa

Christmas day and I’m feeling good from the Christmas lunch celebration. In the evening I catch a flight to Siem Reap. Looking for a pen to fill out the immigration form, I started up a short chat with my neighbor, US foreign affairs employee in Myanmar. We exchanged travel stories and our thoughts about Thailand. Krabi Good, Phuket, Bad. Tourist sites, local sites. Stuff Like that.

The plane lands and I do the Asian Hustle. Meaning, I jump into the aisle and scramble to the front.  No standing and waiting for anyone to get their bag from the overhead compartment. Normally I would be courteous, but really, this is the norm. Don’t expect anyone to give you space while you get your stuff.

In the immigration line. Passport- check. Photo- check. Money… uh where’s all my money? PANIC.

I really shouldn’t be allowed to travel anywhere. Between checking in and getting into this immigration line, I lose all my $20 bills. I mentally start retracing my steps… hmmm.

I think it must have been when I was pulling my passport out for all the different checks between the check in gate, the immigration line, the ticket boarding process, the visa application forms on the plane… the possibilities are endless.

I’m really starting to panic now. How am I going to get into this darn country? Why am I always like this? AHHHHHH.

By chance, my middle seat neighbor comes along -“what’s wrong?”.

I lost all my money. My face is flushed between sweat and redness. He pulls out a $50 bill and hands it to me.

“Here’s some money. You can pay me back later.” WHAT. How are people so nice and trusting? If there’s anything that I’ve learned from travelling, its that there are more nice people in the world than scam artists. Let yourself trust people. This guy doesn’t know if I’m a serial killer or a drug smuggler, yet he had the trust to give me money without knowing if I would ever see him again.

Saved by $50, I pay for my visa and then wait in another queue.

Here’s my email address, my google voice number, my thai phone number, and whatever other promises I can think of so that he can believe that I will return the money.

Cleared from the airport, I find my name on a hotel sign and a nice man waiting to take me to my hotel. The middle seat guy meets his friends and we part ways.

Tourist Itinerary Angkor Wat and more

The next morning- Nina’s friend, Andy arrives from Singapore. He’s in full blown cold mode. Determined to “power through” it, we go to a pharmacy and get some drugs to hide his misery. The first day itinerary in Cambodia is this:

  1. Angkor National Museum
  2. Old City Market
  3. Lunch somewhere tripadvisor recommends
  4. Walk around some more
  5. Relax at hotel – swimming
  6. Getting our Angkor Wat tickets
  7. Sunset tour at a Temple
  8. Night Market
  9. Dinner at Khmer Kitchen
  10. Tuk tuk back to the hotel

Andy “Powering Through” it – Tuk Tuk Ride

I have to give Andy credit. For his American vacation, he squeezed 5 cities into 2 weeks. I forget that Americans only get a few weeks for vacation, so they have to pack everything into a short period. I hate that abour corporate America. Why can’t we relax more? Even our holidays are stressful.

Next day, 430am: Pitch black and quiet. Our hotel gives us our breakfast goody bags and off we go.

I use my powerbank’s flashlight so we don’t eat shit on the stone walkway to the temple. By 530am, all of us tourists are huddled around the reflection ponds. I huddle in my Asian squat and curse the world as bugs continue to bite my legs.

Snap. Snap. Snap. I take about 100 photos. One of them has to be ok.

 

Sun is up – Let the temple extravaganza begin. Most people do the “small tour” which includes the top four temples. Not being shy from a challenge- I arrange a big and small tour that hits up 10 temples. Essentially all of the temples close to Angkor Wat.  To say that there are some Chinese tourists is an understatement. There are about 20 tour buses sitting in the parking lots across from the temples. People posing in front of all the faces. The Hot sun beating down on us. The mixture of sweat and dust creating an icky sticky mess.

11 hours later, we did it. All the damn temples.


Back at the hotel, I run, jump and plunge into the pool. Ahhhh. The soot of the dirty temple dust washes off. Andy passes out sitting upright in the hotel lobby.

 

Siem Reap. Out.

 

Note- I was able to see my $50 guardian angel in the airport on my way out and return the money. Cheers to friendly strangers.

Trying to be a Local in Bangkok and Failing

Ten days later and I’m still waking up each day in disbelief that I’m in Thailand now. At least I’ve mastered   crossing the street, hailing/riding scooters, and using my BTS rabbit card for everything.

Suan Phlu – the Local Market

I’m living in the suburb area between the Sala Daeng and Chong Nonsi BTS stop. The local market, within a 10 minute walking distance, is called Suan Phlu. Suan Phlu is like America’s farmers market but available everyday. First visit:  I walk around starving.  My stomach  decided I should eat everything. There was a line for some stand where the woman was mixing something in a large wooden bowl. It must be Som Tum (papaya salad). I didn’t want to wait in line, so I left and did my grocery shopping making a mental note to come back later.

I pick out an assortment of fresh veggies and pay $3. Feeling quite  accomplished, I head over to the woman  with the wooden bowl and ordered whatever it was that she was making. I also did the  “cross -arms” no spicy sign language. She responded with lots of Thai and kept pointing at a pickled pepper, so I said OK. Then she started making “it.” She pulled out a FISH about 4  inches in length and began to smash the fish into a paste with the pickled pepper.  Then, lots of fish sauce.

Utter horror. What is going on? Where’s the papaya? I start looking around the stand and notice there are no papayas. Yes, green beans, but not much else. Standing there, I tried to hide that dumb look on my face. Waiting for her to finish smashing. She shoveled the paste into a plastic baggy. 20 baht. (75 cents). I placed the smushed fish into my grocery bag and walked away. So much for Som Tum. I guess I still am quite the tourist.

Next,  I decide that I should stick with what I know. Fried Chicken. Yup. That’s easy. I follow the smell and find  fried chicken pieces  on a stand. I point – she chops and boom. Food served. 2 pieces of Fried Chicken ( 2 pieces of thighs and drumsticks connected) for $2. Can’t complain there.

Starting to gain my confidence back after the smashed fish incident, I order some more coconut desserts and wind up at a noodle restaurant. Its filled with people, so I figure it must be good. I point to the wall- and boom they know what I want. Noodles and tea for 55 baht ( $1.50).

Content with my Suan Phlu grocery day, I decide to grab a scooter back instead of walking in the hot sun.

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Tourist Time – Grand Palace and Wat Pho

Nina’s friend from Chicago came into town and had 2 days to tour Bangkok. He had many “must see” items on his list. I grew tired from just listening. But trying not to be a grinch, I decide to tag along the first day.  First, we went to Wat Pho.  The temple with the Giant Golden Buddha is laying on her side.  Last time my cousin and I got some really great massages from the students at the temple.

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This time around I skip the massage and just walk around.

Her friend spent ages taking photos on top of photos. I tried to take photos, but the hot sun got the best of me. Making me lazy. My new thai name- “the laziest tourist in thailand.”

Next – the Golden Palace

Thousands of people are standing in line to pay respects to the King. Only Thai people are allowed to visit the King; one must dress appropriately (ie. all Black). In the weeks after the King’s death, all department stores had sold out of black clothes. You see it all around. All government works are wearing black for the next year. There are white and black ribbon lacing street fences. Images of the King memorialized in front of every business. His death and his memory are all around.

The line to pay respects for the king wraps all around the palace. At dawn, the line to see the king forms and the waiting time quickly grows from 4 hours and even longer throughout the day. People from the country side are coming to Bangkok to pay respect to this Great King.  It’s incredible to see their love and dedication.

On the tourist side- its a different story. The heat reminds me of death valley. There is no breeze and the marble floors seem to reflect the light in such a way that you just feel heat from all angles.

The temple within the Golden Palace houses the famous emerald buddha.  No photos are allowed in the temple. The legend goes that long ago the King of Russia visited the King of Thailand. The Thai King offered the Russian king anything in his kingdom. The foreign king requested the Emerald Buddha. Without hesitation the Thai King gifted the emerald buddha. Taken back by his generosity, the Russian King would like anything in return, and  the Thai King responded ” the Emerald Buddha.” Check Mate. Win.

I found the temple within the golden palace and the emerald buddha beautiful and peaceful. Once I came back out outside, I was reminded of the tourist attraction. Cameras and selfie sticks everywhere. Hot and sticky. Sweaty and stinky.

Gaggan “World’s Best Restaurant in Asia”

According to some website, Gaggan is the best restaurant in Asia. Nina’s friend made reservations 2 months in advance. Tasting Menu for 22 courses for $150. The chef came from El Bulli. That super famous restaurant.  I decided to join in the bougieness,”Merry Christmas and Happy Birthday to Me.” This meal was my year end treat to myself.

The usual Bangkok traffic. We sit waiting for that one light that only changes once every 15 minutes. This place gives LA traffic. Nina calls the restaurant to tell them we are stuck in traffic, the hostess responds ” Try your best to get here on time.” Ok lady. Now that you mention it, we weren’t trying that hard. ha.

The Green Light gods shine down on us, We arrive on time. Randomly, we got selected to be seated at a new chef’s table. My phone is out  and on the table. I’m not one to be ashamed of my food porn. Embrace it.

All 22 courses were innovative and exciting. While I didn’t fall in love with some of them, I appreciated the thought and new tastes.  Uni in a wasabi cone with some fruit: Love it. Gold covered Chocolate gusher ball with spicy sauce: Not so much.  Each dish had its own interpretation of Japanese and Indian cuisine fusion.

The bad side. I only have 2 complaints.

  1.  A fly landed on a piece of sushi during preparation and none of the chefs noticed. Or at least they didn’t react to me pointing and saying “Hey! There a fly on that!” Nina was mortified. Like those card games on new york streets, I kept my eyes on the prize and made sure that I followed the sushi as the chefs served each of us. The dish was served to someone else, I dont think they saw the fly. So all is well.
  2. Using the same spoon to stir and taste. Whatever happened to that one spoon in a chef’s apron.

All in all, I enjoyed dinner. It reminded me of happier and richer times. Definitely innovative eats. I loved the lips starter, sushi, the uni cone, the crab curry, and the tomato soup.

 

 

Lazy Tourist in Thailand – Bangkok and Chiang Mai

About 10 days in Thailand and 4 massages later… I finally visited a Temple. Since its my third time here, I haven’t been really motivated to do all the touristy things. I mean, yes, I have eaten a lot of papaya salads and gotten massages, but I haven’t rode an elephant or gone to aw cooking class. I haven’t been adventuring out and trying to find new things.

Have I become a lazy tourist?

Probably, its almost been one year since I’ve been “working” as an engineer. I set my own schedule, and when someone asks if I want to do something, I look at my schedule and do it. Anything that I had planned, I push it to the side and figure it can wait.

My Top 5 thoughts about Thailand right now:

  1. I still hate mosquitos. They still love me. Its a love/hate relationship.
  2. Wintertime in Thailand = Awesome California like conditions around high 70’s to low 80’s with low humidity. Love it
  3. Food Game is Strong. Bonus- Food is extremely cheap. Lunch for three people – $10. My biggest splurge so far was a burger with fries and a drink for $8.20 (converted from Thai Baht).
  4. Massages cost less than $10/hr. Being American- I always tip at least $3. I constantly fight my American urge to tip. Anytime someone hands me change, I want them to keep it.
  5. Thai People and Ex-Pat vibe is generally positive. I don’t get that Venice Hipster “Im so much more fabulous than everyone else” vibe here.  I could be wrong, but people seem generally happy. Not as much “I hate my life” vibe going on.

My Airbnb accommodation in Chiang Mai has been out of this world. A modern condo building with a nice lap pool (that no one is ever in) and a OK gym. My apartment is a one bedroom (almost like a studio with moveable walls), large flat panel TV, washing machine, AC in both rooms, patio only costs $32 a night. I thought I snagged an amazing deal. Then I found out one of the locals pays about $350 a month for her apartment.

Odd Thought of the day:

I chatted with my local friend here about wages. I wondered if our tourism was taking advantage of the massage therapists and if they were “slave” labor. Then he told me about his favorite massage therapist. She works everyday from the time the place opens till midnight. She takes one lunch break a day. After a few months he goes to get a massage and sees a bandage on her face.  Did she get abused? In a fight? No. She proudly states that she saved up enough money to get a nose job. She wanted to higher nose bridge. What does that even mean??? Well, look at an Asian face and you find that its flat at the nose right between the eyes. Now look at my European descent friends.. its like a mountain between the eyes. I’m digressing.

But the moral of the story is that she couldn’t possibly hating her life and slaving away at some sweatshop massage place if she was able to save up money for plastic surgery. Right?

I felt better knowing they like what they do, and I like paying them and tipping them.  Speaking of which- I think I will go get a massage now.

Here are some photos of my one Temple I visited while in Chiang Mai- Wat Suan Dok.  ( I went to Doi Suthep last time…)

 

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