Tuesday, October 15, 2013

International Criminal

I never thought my travels would come to this...I am now an International Criminal. It all started so innocently.  I never have understood travelers who try to buy things without the local currency, sadly it's mostly Americans. I see it on the same plain as expecting the world to speak your language. While many do speak English and use US currency I think it's rude to assume it. So in being the being the smart respectful traveler that I am in my own mind, I went directly to the bank window at the Addis Ababa airport and bought $20 worth of the local funds, that came to 377 Birr. I had a 4 hour layover so I figured I'd get a coffee, a snack, and maybe a trinket. I went to the coffee shop and it was packed, no space at the bar and no chairs at all. I had no desire to push my way in dragging a small roller bag with me and order anything I had to juggle while standing. So I went to the duty free store thinking I would spend my Birr on fresh Ethiopian coffee for my office mates. I looked around, found coffee and asked how much.  The lady said $6, I asked how much in Birr, "We don't take that, just US and Euro."  I was bum fuddled and a bit put out so I put the coffee back and left. Sorry office mates, I didn't get the coffee. I went to a trinket shop.  The Addis Ababa airport is more market place than airport, there are numerous tourist trinket shops and 3 duty free stores that are sparsely stocked with all the same stuff; liquor, candy, and parfume.  The trinket shop had all the same junk you find anywhere; really bad wood carvings, expensive t-shirts, and cheap ugly jewelry. The only think worth buying was a soccer jersey for my nephew Cody but they wanted $35 for a cheaply made replica. By this time I had been up an going for 36 hours so I was tired and crabby. I decided to forget the shopping and go through security to wait at the gate. I had no idea what to do with the 377 Birr in my pocket. I boarded the flight to Nairobi and started reading the inflight magazine on Ethiopian Airlines, Selamta.  In the back there was an interesting section on Travel in Ethiopia and what do I see???  In the currency section, "It is illegal to carry more than 200 Birr when entering or departing Ethiopia."  Oops! So for $20 I have unknowingly become an international criminal. BTW if your going to Ethiopia let me know, I have Birr you can take with you, but I'll only give you 200, unless you just feel like living dangerously.  Travel On!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Reef Hook Diving

Palau opened my eyes to a whole new diving experience: Reef Hook Diving. 

Blue Corner is a dive spot on the southwestern end of the outer reef of Palau.  It is a spot where the outer coral reef juts out into the ocean and is world famous for its strong currents and huge schools of fish.  Our group had heard tales of Blue Corner but we were a bit apprehensive about the strong current.  When we tied to the buoy, our dive guide, Neil, warned us the current was pretty strong and instructed us to grab the rope next to the boat and work our way down the buoy line, holding on until we were all ready to go together.  As soon as he gave the pool’s open sign, I was first to back roll in and I was immediately swept away in the wrong direction.  I kicked with all my might and after what seemed like forever I made it to the line on the boat.  Hand over fist along the boat and down the mooring line as the current tried to suck me away.  When we were all together hanging on the line, Neil gave the go sign, we let go all at the same time and flew along the top of the reef.  I have never been in a current that strong, but just going with it was fun; it felt like I was flying!  As we came near the corner we made our way closer to the ledge and found a spot on top to hook in. 
Divers hooked in - notice air bubbles going straight back
The reef hook is simply that, a large hook, about the size of your hand on a 3 or 4 foot line with a large brass clip at the other end.  Before the dive we attach the brass clip to a central location on the front of the BCD and roll up the line and hook and secure them in a pocket.  We find a hole or depression with a lip deep in the reef that is strong and anchor the hook there.  Being careful to keep our fins off the reef we put some air in the BCD and float above the reef looking straight into the current.  In front is a drop off out into the deep blue sea and we just wait with a hurricane force current blasting us in the face.  Be careful, you might lose your mask if you turn your head sideways.  I would hold onto my mask but my regulator would free flow when I looked to the side. 
Eventually schools of large ocean fish come cruising by; dogtooth tuna, wahoo, reef sharks, pyramid butterfly fish, triggerfish and many more; all of them swimming along so easily as if there is no current at all.  The sharks would face into the current and hang there without motion as if they too were hooked in.   It was not a steady current so while on the hook you could be yanked up, down, left or right.  Sometimes there would be a strong surge in an already strong current and I just knew my line was going to break any second or my BCD rip and I would go flying over the top of the reef and take out 30 other divers like dominoes.   When I lived in Adak, Alaska we would experience such strong wind storms that you could not walk without holding onto something, you could feel the power of the wind in your face!  This was similar but in water. 
Reef shark just coasting above me
When our time was up Neil motioned us so we would all unhook at the same time and fly together over the top of the reef, on the other side the current was much less but still strong enough that we had to make sure we stayed together as we ascended and did a safety stop in the open water column.  Thank heavens for who ever invented the safety sausage; a long red inflatable pencil shaped balloon that notifies boats there are divers below.  We came up in what I thought was the middle of nowhere but the boat captain saw the safety sausage and was ready with a line off the back of the boat so we would not be swept away while waiting to climb aboard.   Back on the boat we were pumped full of adrenalin and so excited to talk about what we just did.  It was the most exhilarating dive I have ever done.   I wanted to come back and do it again the next day!
The only negative to Blue Corner is that due to its popularity it is a very crowded dive site.  You really have to be careful not to mow into other divers even when they are not always so careful.  To dive Blue Corner you really need to be an advanced diver and have a profession dive guide, so if you have the experience don’t let the thought of the strong current deter you; GO FOR IT!!  IT’S WELL WORTH IT!!
Travel On!


Saturday, July 13, 2013

Peleliu Island - Site of a WWII Battle

Completely unknown to me before this trip, Peleliu Island is located on the southern tip of the Palau chain of islands and it was a very bloody battle location during WWII.  Before WWI the Germans occupied Peleliu and mined phosphate there.  After WWI it was the Japanese who carried on the mining and used it as part of their supply chain in WWII.  MacArthur thought it would be a good location for the US to secure during WWII because it was on the right flank of his planned attack route to the Philippians.  Peleliu was invaded by US Marines and Army in September 1944.  What was supposed to be no more than a one week easy expulsion of the Japanese turned into an 8 week bloody battle; one of the most bloody up until that time.  If you like to read about WWII history and battles, I highly recommend you read With the Old Breed on Peleliu and Okinawa by E. B. Sledge.  I don’t really enjoy reading about war but I found this book fascinating since I knew I was going there. 

Today Peleliu is inhabited by 539 people who make their living mostly from fishing, taro production and growing fruit.  Children growing up on Peleliu can attend school locally up to junior high but have to go to boarding school in Koror, a town on another island, for high school. 
Orange Beach was one of many different beaches to be simultaneously invaded on that September day in 1944.  Almost 70 years later I am standing on that beach, water like glass inside the reef and big rhythmic breaking waves hitting the outside of the reef hundreds of yards away.  Smooth tan colored sand with many small shells under my feet and a gentle breeze that makes it comfortable to stand in the shade of a tree.  The sun is oppressive and the humidity gives my whole body a layer of sweat.  Outside the reef the sea is relatively calm with rhythmic swells and breakers.  The birds are chirping and the whole scene is very peaceful. 
As I stand there, I try to picture a line of Naval ships outside the reef, Marines in landing craft racing toward the beach and the noise of men streaming off the landing craft onto the beach with the sound of machine guns and bombs being lobbed by the Japanese.  I try to feel the adrenalin, excitement, and fear they must have felt as they waded ashore, past buddies who had already been shot, floating in the water dead.  Knowing most of these men were just kids, 19 or so, who had never been away from home before.  Of course I could never really feel what they felt and never really understand their emotions but I knew the peaceful location of today was the complete opposite of the noise and chaos of 69 years ago.  I thought about the families who lost loved ones on this beach or this island and wondered if they were ever able to see the beauty of this place.  I was sad for the loss of so many men from both sides!
The locals have started a WWII museum located in an old concrete building that was a Japanese fuel depot.  It was full of various guns and ammo that had been salvaged from the island, including some very large bombs.  The best part was all the letters written by US GIs to Japanese families returning personal items they had found on the island after its capture.  Those were the most touching to read and some were accompanied by the return letter from the Japanese family.  
Bloody Nose Ridge is the highest point of Peleliu and capturing this point was the goal.  To get there the Army and Marines had to fight their way across an island made of solid ancient coral, covered in thick tropical jungle in 90 degree heat and 95% humidity.  They wore very thick cotton uniforms with long sleeves, long pants, and very heavy thick boots plus they carried hundreds of pounds of gear and equipment.  To get to Bloody Nose Ridge we rode in a van with windows down for AC, wearing light cotton shorts, t-shirts and sandals, carrying nothing.  The road now goes a little more than half way up the 200 plus foot ridge, at the end of the road is a very nice Japanese memorial.  From there we climbed straight up over 120 wooden stairs to get to the top – it was steep, hot and humid so the climb was not easy but compared to what the GI’s had to face to get there it was a walk in park.  At the top there is an Army/Marine monument and a spectacular 360° view of the island and surrounding sea.  I wondered how the GI’s who captured that ridge saw beauty of that view.  They had been in hell for weeks, they were homesick, tired, scared, dirty, hurting, and who knows what else but did they see the beauty?  Or is the beauty lost to the trauma of the experience?  Maybe having just come through hell made it even more beautiful?  I can never know but at that moment I was grateful to God for the beauty and grateful to our service members for their service and sacrifice!

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Jellyfish Lake

You have seen it on the Discovery Channel a hundred times and always thought how cool it would be to actually see that.  If you make a trip to Palau only to see Jellyfish Lake you will be disappointed but if you happen to already be in Palau don’t miss it!  There are actually more than 80 saltwater lakes in the islands of Palau, each with its own biodiversity.  A few even have similar type jellyfish but there is only one that is accessible to tourists.  South of Malakal Harbor only accessible by a 30 minute boat ride is Eli Malk Island; this is where Jellyfish Lake is located.  Your boat docks at a pier and the park rangers check your entrance pass.  You are directed not to wear any sunscreen, perfume or lotions of any type.   You can wear just a swimsuit but the water is pretty chilly. 

Many of our group wore our wet suits and booties.  With mask, snorkel and camera in hand we left everything else on the boat and started the hike to the lake.  The trail was made of rock and concrete stairs that were pretty steep but were shaded by the tropical trees.  It was about a 10 minute hike up a hill to flat terrain across the top and then a 5 minute hike down into the valley where the lake is located.  There is a dock at the lake guarded by another park ranger and it looks like nothing special; just some tropical cold freshwater lake.  Our guild instructed us to swim out and around the corner along a mangrove shoreline with cardinal fish in the roots.  He told us when we start to see jellyfish keep swimming, when we see 10 or 15 jellyfish, keep swimming, when we see 30-40, keep swimming, when we see 100 keep swimming and when we are completely surrounded by 100’s of jellyfish stop and look around.  He warned us to move slowly and try not to kick with our fins while around the jellyfish so we don’t harm them.  

When I arrived at the main gathering of jellyfish I just floated….so quiet…so surreal.  The jellyfish just pulsed as they moved up down and around.  They were sized from as small as the tip of my pinky finger pulsing very fast, like the heartbeat of a humming bird, all the way to the size of my outstretched hand pulsing much slower.  It was the most Zen moment of my whole life, so relaxed, so peaceful!  I was thinking that everyone needs a jellyfish lake in their backyard to float in after a stressful day.  I just kept taking photos and video even though they all look alike, I could not stop because I wanted to remember every single moment.  At one point a couple of other swimmers came close and they were talking to each other above water and grunting and pointing below water.  Their noise ruined the whole experience so I moved away from their chatter.  After what seemed too short a time we swam back to the dock and did the hike in reverse.   The next time you see Jellyfish Lake on the Discovery Channel mute the sound, move closer to the TV and just silently watch the movement of the jellyfish – it won’t be the same but you will get the idea.   This was totally worth the extra cost!!
Travel On!

Saturday, May 25, 2013


To get to Palau from the US you go through Hawaii, Guam, and Yap and eventually arrive in Palau about 2 am local time.  We had a full day in Yap before we caught the 1 am flight to Palau so we were all falling asleep even before we boarded the 45 minute flight.   As we arrived over Palau all we could see were city lights, yes compared to Yap everything is a city.  I could tell right away that Palau was much more populated than Yap.  We arrived tired and crabby to a large open air lobby at the Sea Passion Hotel and had a bit of a bumpy check in with unorganized staff and a broken air conditioner in the room.  After a few hours of sleep everything was all better.  The Sea Passion has one of the most scenic swimming lagoons I have ever seen; the perfect crescent shape, surrounded by perfectly shaped palm trees, water that is 10 different shades of blue/green and a white sugar sand beach.  Sadly I never once swam in that lagoon.  After a two hour round trip boat ride to the dive sites and a full day of diving I was ready for a shower and  dry clothes when we got back to the hotel.

Often when I travel to a new location I find myself saying, “This looks like….” But that was not the case with Palau.  Granted there are a lot of places on this globe I have never seen but, so far, no place looks like Palau!  Most Pacific Islands are either one huge mountain volcano covered in lush vegetation, an atoll, or an ancient flat coral reef that looks like it will be swamped with one good wave.  To me, what set Palau apart is how there are thousands of tiny little dot islands so close together.  Like God tossed a hand full of huge limestone pebbles into the ocean and said, “Let there be Palau.”  The larger islands are not just one big mountain, like Fiji, they look as if some of the pebbles all bunched together and grew vegetation.  The small islands are 50 to over 100 feet tall, have really steep sides covered in tropical vegetation, and most don’t have any beach.  The sides plunge straight into the water where the sea has eroded a perfect undercut making each little island look like a cartoon mushroom.  It is hard to describe.  I never got tired of inspecting each island as we flew passed in the dive boat on the way to and from the dive sites:  looking at its shape, looking to see how far the sea has cut into the base, looking at the different trees, none of which were palm trees unless there was a sandy beach.  There are very few islands with a sandy beach.
Since the hotel was just around the corner by boat, our dive master picked us up every morning in the boat, took us straight back to the hotel in the afternoon and we left all our gear on the boat.  It was great not to have to wash gear every day and schlep it back and forth to the boat!!  A girl could get spoiled!!
Palau is a lot more populated than I expected and it is full of people from other places.  Everyone I met was from somewhere else; India, Philippians, China, Japan, Canada, USA, Australia, New Zealand, Germany and any other place you can think of.  There is a large population of young US expats and I am not sure why; some were doing the bum around the world thing, some were working and I think some were going to school.  It looks like there is a lot to see and do in Palau.  The main island of Koror was full of resorts, shopping and restaurants.  We never made it up north the largest main island where the capital city of Melekeok is located.  It would be good to have a car and be able to take a day or two and just explore the island.  I would think it would be pretty easy to spend a couple of weeks just in Palau exploring the area and diving.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

A Once in a Lifetime Trip

That is a once in a lifetime trip!! 

What does this statement mean to you? 

Is it a trip to a location so remote, exotic, exciting and expensive that you only take one trip of that type during your whole lifetime?  OR could it mean you go to that remote, exotic, exciting, expensive location only once because there are so many other remote, exotic, exciting, expensive trips to take? 
Maybe it's not remote.  Maybe it's not exotic to some people.  Maybe it's not expensive at all.  It only has to be a place you have dreamed about going. 
Where do you want to go on your once in a lifetime trip(s)?
Travel On

Monday, May 13, 2013

Yap – The Land of Stone Money

Traditional Dress
Yap, it is not the sound a small annoying dog makes; it is an island in the southwest Pacific.  Located just over 800 miles due east of the Philippine Islands, Yap is one four island states that make up the Federated States of Micronesia.  Spread out over one million square miles of ocean these small islands total only 271 square miles of land.  Getting here is not easy but well worth it.  The trip started in Seattle with an afternoon flight to LAX where I met up with my Helena Scuba friends.  We stayed overnight and caught an early flight to Honolulu.  After a short layover we boarded a 7.5 hour flight to Guam.  While in Guam we had enough time to take a short jaunt out of the airport to walk along the beach at Tumon Bay.  Back at the airport we caught a 3 hour flight to Yap arriving just after 1 am local time.  It was a 26 hour trip from LA!

As we came out of customs we were greeted by a lady dressed in a lava lava (traditional colorful grass skirt) and something like a lei that is woven from thick strips of palm leaves with small red flowers woven in.  She was topless but I did not realize that until later because the lei covered her very well.  She gave each of us a smaller version of her lei as we came out of customs.   Just like most tropical airports this one was completely open to the warm humid night air.
We were on Yap to scuba dive which I have already written about but we also discovered a very rich and traditional culture.  Part of the joy of travel is the research you do ahead of time but I have to admit I did absolutely no research on Yap before this trip.  In my mind, Yap was just a minor stop to see the Manta Rays so I spent my time reading about Palau. 
Men's House
I underestimated Yap!!  Populated well before the birth of Christ by sailors from Indonesia and the Philippines the Yapese have always been known for their great navigation skills.  When you live in a place that is less than .03% land and GPS has not been invented yet, you better know how to navigate by reading the sea, clouds and stars.  While the modern world has invaded Yap with mini-marts, cell phones and Wi-Fi many people still live a very traditional life.  The social structure is a caste system with a strict social rank and each area is led by a chief.  The men never change their social rank but women can change by marriage.  They still meet in community houses built out of palm leaves, coconut rope, tree trunks, and bamboo with low eves to keep out the sun but open sides to allow air flow.  They are very cool inside on a hot day.  Built the same, but a bit smaller is the “men’s house” where men hold meetings and just gather to get away.  Much like a man cave today, only no electricity for the big screen TV. 
Stone Money Bank
Their financial system historically consisted of various sizes of stone money that was carved from Palau and brought back to the island.  Even today local people still own stone money and use it to buy land and homes.  When you think of stone money, you think of small coin size pieces carved from stone, right?  Well no, their stone money ranges from small sizes like that to very large round stones taller than a man with a hole in the middle.  We visited a stone money “bank.”  It was a path lined with all sizes of round wheel-like stones each with a hole in the middle used to carry them back to the island.  The money never moves but does change ownership.  Its value comes in the history of the stone and how it was carved.  A small stone, carved by hand with a giant clam shell and brought over long ago on a wooden canoe is more valuable than a much larger stone carved with more modern metal tools and brought over on a large ship.  When the stone changes hands the current owner must pass down the history of the stone to the new owner.  A long rich history adds value to the stone. 
Betel Nut and Pepper Leaf
Something very unique to Yap and almost nowhere else is the chewing of Betel Nut.  This is an addiction that is much like smoking, chewing tobacco or habitual coffee drinking here in the states.  I don’t remember meeting one Yapese adult that did not chew Betel Nut.  The Betel Nut grows on a palm like tree; they pick a green nut, crack it in half, put lime inside (not the fruit, but ground up limestone) and wrap the whole thing in a pepper leaf.  Put it in the back of the mouth and slowly chew, spitting out the extra juice.  Doing this causes the juices to become a bright red color and if you did not know any better you might think a chewer was bleeding in the mouth.  The red color stains the teeth and anything else it is spat upon.  In many stores there are no spitting signs and there are spitting cans outside to keep it from staining the sidewalk.  Our tour guide extraordinaire, Theo, sat us down in the men’s house, showed us the process and let us try it. I tried it and it gave me a small head rush like a first cigarette but I did not chew too long.  Your dentist would not be very happy with you if you chewed Betel Nut on a regular basis, it is not easy on the teeth.
WWII Wreck
Yap did not become entangled in WWII until late, April 1944, when the Japanese build a runway so the Americans started bombing it.  I asked what the local people did during that time and was told some left to live with family in other areas and some stayed trying to avoid the dangerous action.  In that short time it saw its share of WWII action and there are still many war relics scattered over the island and in the surrounding sea.  There are still 120 American men listed as MIA on Yap.  You might ask, why, how is that possible?  I did.  But with the depth of the sea, the steep ocean shelf and the extremely dense jungle, it is very possible.  There are planes that went down over Yap that have never been found and one that was discovered as recently as 2006. 
I have a lot of respect for the Yap people they seem to have done a great job at adopting the modern conveniences of life without losing their rich heritage.   Yap is a place I would like to return to; for great diving and to experience more of the daily life of the local people!