Travel

Manta & Sun rays

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My right hand has started to go numb. My right elbow is throbbing, and Rose has just said: “It’s a right. Turn right up ahead!”.

At this moment, the only thing going right is the weather. We’re in Nusa Lembongan, a small island off the East coast of Bali that like much of the mainland, is blessed with great views.

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However, once you’ve tired of the blue sky and surf, and turn your gaze to the road, you realize it’s also blessed with a lot of potholes. Not a few. Not a smattering. Hives. Colonies. There’s more holes than there is an actual road, and we haven’t got a moon buggy to drive over them.

Right now, Rose and I are busy careening over every single one on a scooter. I’m turning my wrist to reduce our speed at the same time as clamping down on the brakes to make sure we slow down enough that we don’t bite our tongues as we pitch into each crater.

I’m sure it’s an easy enough task if you’re local. But I haven’t driven a scooter in a while, and I’m nervous. Rose is on the back, and I’m not used to steering and braking with an extra person. I’m tense and my knuckles have turned white from the crocodile bite grip I’ve got on the handlebars. In turn, this has put too much pressure on my hand so that I can no longer feel it, while it’s also sending pain up my arm where it’s now reverberating in my elbow.

It’s a fine old day in paradise, which could only be worse if we were lost.

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And, wouldn’t you know it.

We’d asked our B&B where we could find a particular dive shop, which is the reason we’re here – to go diving. She’d pointed down the street to the left of the place, and said these simple, innocent words:

“It’s just down there”.

Now two hours have nearly passed, and we’ve been everywhere across the island. Really, everywhere. We’ve driven the entire length and perimeter, but we’ve yet to find “there”.

The greatest thing going for us is that we’re on an island. So, we both reason, and keep telling each other “we’re going to find it sooner or later”.

We were right, of course. We found it. Not sooner though. Much later. About another half hour more, after we’d thrown up our hands (one hand for me) and were on our way back to our B&B to ask the woman who gave us directions if she might be able to be a little bit more specific.

And, there it was, in plain letters, what we”d been searching for: Lembongan Dive Center.

Right. Next. Door. To. Our. B&B.

I estimated we drove by it at about, oh, the 6 second mark of our soon to be 2.5hr journey. Maybe I’m exaggerating: probably, more the 5 second mark.

After this, I thought Rose and I could star in the following public service announcement to help promote tourism:

“Do you have trouble with instructions? Find everyday conversations incredibly complex? Do you pull a door when the sign says push and you can’t help push when it’s time to pull?

Hey. We understand. Don’t get down on yourself. There’s a whole world out there you can explore. Book your ticket to travel today!”

Merci, thank you, Terima Kasih. I think it’s important to embrace one’s talents.

Thankfully we found the dive shop the next day, even early enough to get our dive gear on, and headed out in search of manta rays.

Amazingly, the water was as choppy as the road. There were huge swells, as the boat ran up over a wave, then came smacking down on the other side before rolling up another one to land smack dab again.

Rose and I each have our own travel weaknesses. Mine are planes. I had a panic attack flying in one nearly 15 years ago, and I’ve been fighting the impulse since – convincing myself it’s the safest form of travel, blah, blah (the statistical angle), you know being rational, while trying to beat down the irrational nutcase who pops out mid-flight to say things like: “You think that person sitting over there stowed a bomb on board?” or “What are the odds of hitting another plane in mid-air?” or ” That mechanical groan sounds like the wing might fall off” or after a bit of turbulence, in a similar cackle to Axl Rose from Welcome to the Jungle: “YOU’RE GONNA DIE!”.

Rose’s problem are boats. She’s had a long, violent history in their bathrooms, on deck, and leaning overboard. So, to pick up diving as a hobby might seem a little masochistic. But Rose, if you’ve come to know her at all, is very methodical, and here she was no different. She puts a firm system in place to counteract her swells inside. As I might hang tight to an armrest on a plane (keeping it aloft in my mind), Rose stares laser-like at the horizon, never to have her gaze interrupted. Even if I wheeled out a plate of pancakes with Devon cream and raspberries, she wouldn’t see them.

The side effect of this rigorous exercise is that she also takes a vow of silence. So intent is she on taming the sea inside her stomach to ensure nothing passes her lips, that she also includes words in the embargo.

In the early stages of the boat trip out, Rose and I got chatting with people on board, asking about their stay, where they’ve dived and so on. Then, as if on a dime, when the swells started and we smacked down – Rose turned away from the group, and entered her silent meditation as we all kept talking. So, to someone who doesn’t know her approach, it might have seemed as if someone had said something so supremely offensive that she now refused to speak to them.

But her silence wouldn’t last. Like someone who’s hypnotized until the magician says a special word to bring them back to lucidity, someone on deck said: “mantas!”, and Rose bolted out of her trance with a smile on her face.

Just to our right off the ship, were two 4 metre long mantas, swimming right near the surface. It was amazing to see – but as I was still staring, people were scrambling to put on their wetsuits and gear. “Right. We’re here to see them underwater”, and cluing in I got dressed up.

We dropped backwards off the boat, and as I turned around a manta was swimming right towards me with its wings and mouth spread wide:

“HOLY SHIT”, I nearly spat out my regulator.

Eventually, we settled into our dive and for the last 15 minutes we all sat around 20 meters deep and watched five massive mantas twirling around above us near the surface, eating food, and swooping around.

I was laughing underwater, I couldn’t believe we had this luck. Afterwards, Rose didn’t lose her grin for the entire ride back – and something remarkable happened – as we smacked down on top of another wave.

She spoke. She gushed. She couldn’t stop saying: “YESS! Did you see them flip?”

Could mantas cure sea-sickness? We’d test the theory at our next stop in Komodo where we once again suited up for diving.

But before that, I’d have a huge test. And, I barely earned a D+.

Talk soon

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Sedate in Sanur

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We arrived in Bali, Indonesia. And, this is what we stared at for 8 days straight in between looking up from our books.

Nicknamed, “Snore” by some travellers, Sanur, Bali was just the right speed after travelling every two days in Cambodia.

It’s billed as Bali’s first tourist center, where resorts pitched Bali style bungalows on prime locations right along the beach, off the eastern coast. There, adventurous early European travellers would land pre-1960 to indulge in what they understood, through travel advertising of the time, would be exoticism and blissful weather.

Today, Sanur is more popularly known as a family vacation spot, where the swimming is easy for kids, and there’s a long boardwalk that stretches the beach’s length with cafes, restaurants, and charter boats for hire.

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Being our second visit to Bali, we were more familiar with things, but no less enchanted. Our perspective only meant that things we saw as exotic the first time around, were now more understandable. Plus, as a family destination that includes occasional screaming children, temper tantrums, and kids with ice cream goatees, it further highlighted that exoticism would remain out of orbit.

Thankfully, though, good weather was in full flux.

We found a room at a homestay – basically a hotel, but built within a family’s compound. The cost is much less, and it’s a way that allows you to interact with a family as you might through AirBnB or a European pensione.

Immediately, Rose was mistaken for Indonesian, and the family addressed her in Bahasa. “Oh. You look like you’re from Sumatra”, they’d say after Rose had politely smiled, and gave away her non-Indonesianess by answering with “Terima Kasih”, which means “thank you”, a reasonable response, but in the family’s eyes: a sign she was clearly as foreign as me.

Amazingly this pattern would repeat itself in 98% of the interactions we had. In one, it even got us a local discount, because the guy, couldn’t quite understand where Rose fit. By that time she’d mastered a few sentences, I think purely because of all this undue attention – she felt she had a persona to live up to – and with that combination and an apparent Sumatran face that got more and more tanned as the days went on, the guy just went ahead and gave us “local price”.

For the record: this never happened in the Philippines. Most salesmen barely understood her Tagalog. And, the ones that did, spoke back to her in English to help out. Discounts? Nada so much.

In any case, I think Rose has enjoyed all the attention, and the family at the homestay were eager to indulge by explaining how to say certain things in Bahasa – which she’d then tutor me on later in the day, though I haven’t really progressed much better than a “Terima Kasih” level.

As we lived out our slow paced life in Sanur, we mapped out the place pretty well by bike and on foot, eating at small local eateries for insanely low prices. Called “warungs”, Rose and I could eat a substantial meal for a total of $6 CAD for two. Pretty great.

On a not so great note, I broke a tooth. I thought a piece of fish was extra crunchy in my mouth, so added some extra pressure to snap it in two. The crunchy part was actually a bone. And my tooth forfeited.

Interestingly, it gave me a peek into a whole medical tourism industry supported mainly by visiting Australians. Dental procedures were a third of the price in Bali. So, for Australians who couldn’t afford the work at home, many flew here to get it done. Mine was no exception. For a new part of my tooth, I paid about 70% less than I had in Canada.

The good news is that 100% of it is still in my mouth. So far, so solid. But I’ll let you know if the savings later fall out.

There was another event that stirred us from our peaceful stupor, and allowed us to wipe the drool from our mouths, after reading books on our iPads for hours:

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TURTLES!

All of a sudden there was a commotion on the beach in front of us, and as one person showed up, then two, then three, I thought I should be the fourth, and there they were, baby turtles, which another lady had volunteered to pick up and put in a bucket, while another guy with “Security” on his t-shirt seemed to be directing her actions.

Rose, seeing the life or death struggle of the little guys, decided to take things into her own hands, and picked up the lady’s collection, ran them down to the ocean and released them – thinking, “Swim little ones! Before I reconsider and ask a chef to put you in a soup”.

A fair analysis. But, unfortunately, hasty. The “Security” guy said they had a small tank, which they kept newborns in BEFORE sending them out in the ocean. Rose looked up, guiltily, realizing she’d just rushed them to what she thought was safety, but in fact, may have put them in peril.

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So, with the help of some local kids, we brought them back in – dropped them in a bucket, and quickly returned to our iPads where we could once again make safer mistakes, like streaking the iPad glass with sticky fingers from a brownie.

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We really discovered how long we’d been here, when the beach touts stopped approaching us to sell us things, and we no longer heard the omnipresent two questions on the street:

“TAXI? TRANSPORT?”

Ok. It was a sign to move on. We packed up and would bring our low pulses to watch an entire village of men cut each other before patting each on the back with a smile. After that temporary excitement, we’d head East to a snorkelling spot called Amed, where we gawked at undersea life and listened to our toenails grow some more.

Talk soon

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Ho Chi Minh: The City 2

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One thing that I hadn’t fully appreciated about Vietnam was that it was at war for nearly two thirds of the 20th Century.

Starting with Communist resistance in the 1930s followed by the First Indochina war with the French in 1945, which was then carried on by the Americans until 1975.

Of all these conflicts, the Vietnam War was the one that had the biggest impact on my imagination as a kid and teenager (known by the Vietnamese as “The American War”). All largely from American films: Platoon, Rambo, Good Morning Vietnam, Casualties of War, Apocalypse now, Full Metal Jacket and Jacob’s Ladder. The list goes on.

I’ve watched them all, repeatedly. Some so much, that their plots soon became ridiculous – like Rambo. I remember watching it with my buddy, Geoff, as a kid, and there was so much mayhem and destruction, we both thought it was absurd – so we’d start tallying up how many people Sylvester Stallone had killed throughout the movie to highlight the point.

The conversation would go like this:

“That was a HUGE explosion. How many you think? 30? – yeah, do we count the pigs too?”

By the end, we’d have some ungainly number like: 700 deaths- completely insane. So, I was howling when Rambo’s killing spree (genocide) was lampooned by another 80’s hero: Weird Al in his classic, UHF:

Of course, as a kid, I’d watch all these war movies as a participant. I’d insert myself into the plot, imagining the fear of being a soldier, wondering if I would be able to hold up in combat. Really the only thought I had then was why are these Vietnamese killing Americans? Never considering the other perspective and maybe wondering what Americans were doing in Asia to begin with?

Only as I got older, and watched films indicting the war like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter, along with documentaries and books, did I question the Vietnam War as a glamorous, heroic American pursuit, instead seeing it more as an American tragedy.

I know. Not a unique position.

Regardless, the Vietnam War occupied so much of my early ideas of war, that I really wanted to visit a major exhibit in Ho Chi Minh City: The War Remnants Museum. And the rest of Team Canada, was also game.

Interestingly, the museum was first called: Museum of Chinese and American war crimes, which, despite its subtle ring – didn’t last. The reason, like most of everything else, was money. A lot of it.

In the years after the U.S. rapprochement in 1994, the U.S. represented a massive export market for Vietnamese goods. With its former patron, the USSR, in tatters, Vietnam needed la moulah. So, a little museum name change and poof…Vietnam can now, as part of their exports, make money on t-shirts they send to the U.S with communist symbols all over it. Propaganda was now worth more outside the country.

In the courtyard of the politically correct named museum, there are American tanks, helicopters and fighter jets that Vietnam took possession of once the U.S. left the country in 1975 (I assume that’s how they came by them):

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But the main exhibits were inside. First was a joint U.S. Vietnamese photograph collection put together by a well known American photojournalist, chronicling the years of the War from both an American and Vietnamese photographer’s perspective.

The whole thing, I thought, was really well done. No details were spared on both sides: showing harrowing, graphic shots of women, men and soldiers, and photos that defied any photo stagecraft, like a photo of a plane coming apart in mid-air, plus a duo of shots showing a soldier walking down a path, then a second photo showing an explosion in that exact place where the soldier had been a second earlier.

In these scenarios, I can only imagine photographers pointed their camera in a direction, rhymed off a few shots, hoping to capture something, and wound up with powerful images, entirely by chance.

The exhibition also included, what might be one of the most famous – the prize winning photo of a young girl, after a napalm attack:

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Interestingly, the girl in the photo – Phan Thi Kim Thuc, is now a Canadian citizen. She defected in the early 90s, and is living in Ajax. You’re welcome CRTC – there’s your bit of CanCon.

Onwards from there to another exhibit, it got even more grim (which is why I didn’t take any photos a)because a photo of a photo is a bit odd b)it was one of those things I found I wanted to experience without trying to document it while it was happening).

There was a showcase of the effects of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese population, and even some offspring of American soldiers. Sad, and painful to look at.

It also included a deformed fetus in formaldehyde, which I thought was a bit ghoulish and unnecessarily heavy handed, but given the earlier name of the museum, the curators were obviously not victims of subtlety.

Afterwards, I think our whole group was reeling a little from the intensity of the whole thing, and we sauntered out to reset our mood with a bowl of Pho, and a beer.

However, it wasn’t our last War themed site. We also visited the rooftop of the Rex Hotel in downtown HCMC, which was a hangout for wartime journalists in the 60s/70s.

As we traveled our way to the top, the prices climbed with us. Out on the rooftop balcony, we each ordered a drink to linger over and take some photos of the view:

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When we returned, I got the bill and realized that this thing:

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was $10 CDN.

Yeah, I know – not unexpected in any rooftop patio in any major city in North America. But, in Vietnam, the equivalent price for something like this (sans umbrella of course – and tasty waaaa-feer) in a restaurant on the street is closer to $1.50. La horreur!

By the time we reached the lobby, I saw the error of our ways reflected in the buildings around, which were all high end fashion brands. We’d, inadvertently, wound up in Ho ChiChi ville.

Regardless, it was a nice way to see another side of the city, which until then had been Pho joints and market food:

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After a nice meal that evening, care of Matty’s kindness, we toasted our time in Vietnam, and wondered what lay ahead in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Home to Angkor, Apsara and Angelina.

Talk soon

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