Melbourne: The Melting Pot

I didn’t know what to expect. Would Melbourne be like big cities everywhere? Would it be dusty, like an outpost? Would it be like San Francisco since it had a big sheltered bay? Or would it be something from an English town-planning book? I had some time to think about it: my plane was delayed. Instead of moving forward in my adventure, I wandered the Cairns airport, ate scones and cream in the coffee shop, ransacked the airport gift shops, and wrote a couple of dozen postcards. I spoke with some returning Aussie tourists and we had a laugh about their experiences in the Pacific Northwest (they asked “just how many times can you say ‘authentic’ before it doesn’t mean anything?”).

Finally, though, the plane boarded and I went to Melbourne.

I was greeted on arrival by a Kashmiri taxi driver. He was, it turned out, a typical Melbourne denizen, learning computer networking at university in his off hours and about to graduate. There were tons of young people in the city, some on holiday and others working and studying there. Most of them, it seemed, were immigrants and it reminded me of San Francisco. Another thing that reminded me of San Francisco were the foodies! Melbourne is known for its restaurants. The city is expanding, and prosperous. I think the city bird may be the construction crane. Everywhere I turned, I could see another building going up and another set of orange cones directing me away from a rubbly sidewalk. According to those in the know, the city has changed a lot in the last 20 years. It was once more of a place that was small, cozy, waiting for news from “home” (England) and the population was mostly Irish/British-ancestry, and Italian and Greek immigrants. Now there are people here from all over the world, and it’s a garden of steel and glass skyscrapers. It’s got its own firm identity and pride of place.

First things first though – forget all this tourist musing – I’m hungry. And restaurant standards are high in this town, a fact I’d been keenly anticipating. Where to eat, then?

I’d been told to try the Victoria Market. The market was open late since it was a Wednesday, and all the market food stalls would be serving dinner. Many of them had favorable write-ups online and in my tourism book. Great – let’s go. Well, actually, hang on a minute. Seems everyone else has the same idea on a Wednesday night. I was in no way prepared for the crowds. It was completely overwhelming, and impossible to know what food would be good since there were long, serious lines at every stall. Did I mention that there seemed to be an uncounted number of eateries in this place, too? The market buildings just went on and on and the crowds with them. It seemed like the entire city plus a few extra busloads of people had all landed there at once, too. It was a polite mad house, Australia being a Commonwealth country, but a madhouse all the same. I decided to go on back to the hotel and get a recommendation for a quieter spot. I ended up sitting at the bar in an Asian Fusion joint (aka “Mod Oz”) that had amazing food. I had to dress up for dinner, because that’s how it is in the nicer parts of town, but it was worth it. My first intro to Melbourne food was a win for the home team!

The cuisine only improved as the week went on. They have this great thing in Melbourne: the chocolate shop. It’s a place that only serves desserts and coffees. They’ve got the usual ice creams, sorbets, milkshakes and the like but also chocolate in many forms – usually fantastic gourmet-level chocolates. When I went, I got churros made to order with chocolate dipping sauce. Oh, yum. I don’t know who thought of this business idea, but it’s taken off, and I’m grateful. I had wonderful Italian food, too, but mostly, Mod Oz was the thing on the menu. It’s very healthy, good for those watching their carbs and increasing their veg and seafood intake, and it’s all over town. They also have special drinks, in particular non-alcoholic “waters” of the day that are a fruit-infused water, or sometimes a blended frappe sort of thing with only fruit and herbs. These drinks are wonderful, especially when it’s hot out. I consumed several different types here and later in Adelaide, where it gets very hot and dry in summer. Really, the best part was how difficult it was to get food that was not well made or not good for you – everything was the best that you could ask for and you wouldn’t feel overly indulgent or sorry afterward. We Americans could learn something.

As an added attraction, my fine Melbourne hotel was beautiful. It was the first time I’d been anywhere with a real concierge and capable facilities since Honolulu and it was a pleasure. I took advantage of it: shipping all my rented camera gear back to Los Angeles through their service, getting my shoes repaired by a good cobbler (people care about their shoes here!) and getting good restaurant recommendations. The view from the room was pretty nice too.

Still, I didn’t spend all my time in the city. I rented a car (gasp!!). Yes, that’s right, I drove in Australia and no one was harmed. Not even a koala bear. I braved the “other” side of the road and the infamous Melbourne “hook turn”. I’ve nicknamed it a tram turn, but they call it a hook. It’s where you turn from the most outside lane across all lanes of traffic in the opposite direction; this is only done at the last moment of your traffic light, and it’s rather dramatic. Feels weird to do it, but it sort of makes sense given the fact that there may be a tram coming in the center of the road, and you cannot sit on its tracks waiting to make your unprotected turn – ergo, the “tram turn” or the “hook turn”. Here’s a little video of the procedure, so you can get the gist: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oofmv1gep1I

The freeway was easier driving than in town, and I must say all of Australia was easier driving than the logging routes of Malaysia or the little towns and roundabouts of Malta. Along the way, I noticed art sculpture along the roadside. What a great country. Still, I don’t think I’m ready for driving in London yet, despite the practice. I gamely drove an hour or so down to the end of the land for a look at the ocean and a coastal supper. Several people had recommended this route and I thought I ought to try it – let me tell you they were right. I visited the town of Portsea, overlooking the Bass Strait and Tasman Sea, then I went back north for a lovely dinner in the aptly-named town of Sorrento.

Melbourne was full of surprises. I would never have dared to guess it would be as special as it truly is. Australia has magic. In Portsea, in a place as close to the end of the earth as I had ever come, I saw what was perhaps the most beautiful sunset I’ve ever watched. The sun was a golden ball turning everything around it pink and orange, and the strong cold surf crashing on the long sandy beach was this white and aqua color with the calmer water behind the breakers reflecting the orange and pink sky. I couldn’t stop looking at it. Believe it or not, I didn’t want to photograph it. It felt intensely private, religious perhaps, and somehow, I needed to keep it to myself. I’m telling you about it only so you will know to go there if you’re in Melbourne someday: it’s beautiful enough to bring you to tears if you slow down and watch.

The view from my hotel room shortly after sunrise.  Count the cranes!

The view from my hotel room shortly after sunrise. Count the cranes!

New year's decorations in the streets of Melbourne.

New year’s decorations in the streets of Melbourne.

The city is also famous for its graffiti.  The artists ran when they saw me.

The city is also famous for its graffiti. The artists ran when they saw me.

The Melbourne streetscape that was, in front, and the new, in back.

The Melbourne streetscape that was, in front, and the new, in back.

Crowded Victoria Market at dinnertime in summer

Crowded Victoria Market at dinnertime in summer

Churros and chocolate

Churros and chocolate

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Posted in Australia, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Australia: The Sixth Continent

That’s not its formal name, but it’s how I think of Australia. My perhaps indulgent goal is to reach all seven continents someday. Australia is number six. Despite reading and talking to friends who’d visited, seeing movies and consulting online guides, I still had no idea what to expect. I’d heard so many things, but I wondered, what would it be like, this place I’d never been, this goal I’d had for so long? Answer: it is amazing. I thought Australia would be good, but I had no idea that it would be this good. Wow. I might be ready to emigrate. It’s a very long flight from anywhere, which is a bit of a problem, but otherwise, I see no reason not to make a home in Australia. Of course, there is the pesky matter of needing to have a marketable skill that warrants a residence visa, and getting my stuff moved across a couple of oceans, but otherwise, I’m ready to go.

My introduction to Australia was late at night at the Cairns airport, in from Guam. The flight was a mere five hours, direct, but we didn’t get in until 12:30 AM. Even at that hour, it was 29 degrees Celsius and about 80% humidity. Cairns has a tropical summertime, and beautiful flowers to go with it – yes, that’s right, it was summer down there in the southern hemisphere, and what a treat after chilly Maryland. There were, as always, forms to fill out, but this time with a real emphasis on quarantine. The Australians are very concerned about non-native species invasion, having had epic-scale problems with transportation, if you’ll forgive the ironic word. To name just one example: rabbits. Victorians introduced rabbits as a sport-hunting quarry in the 1800s. Now they are a destructive plague with no natural predators. Australia actually built over 2,000 miles of rabbit-proof fencing across the continent to stem the tide. Knowing this, I was explicit in my declarations. I don’t want to be the person who was responsible for introducing some tiny pest that permanently ruins the crops of a continent, thank you very much. And I had something to declare. Because the early morning dive boat people hadn’t said anything about breakfast, at the Guam airport I picked up a can of macadamia nuts, some dried pineapple and a bag of dried green mango to keep me going. Hey, dried green mango is good, people. Branch out. Anyway, fruit is a perpetual pest carrier, so I made sure to declare my snacks. Upon collecting my luggage at the carousel, I had a little inspection, put my things through X-Ray, and was allowed to keep my food. The whole thing was low key, quickly handled, and professional. The driver who picked me up was also fast and efficient, and he didn’t mind stopping en route for a bottle of water and an electrical outlet adapter (can’t believe I forgot that). We couldn’t find the adapter, but it wasn’t for lack of trying. In about 30 minutes, I was standing before my hotel in the little beachside town of Palm Cove.

I heard Palm Cove was a lovely place to stay, more peaceful than the bustle of the city. I’m a little sorry to have missed Cairns, but Palm Cove was so pretty that it won me over. My lodgings were typically Australian. Tourists there seem to like apartments, which is what I got. The place was squeaky clean and it had a washing machine and dryer. The bed was comfortable, there was air conditioning, and I could see the ocean right across the little street. Perfect. But it was also on the third floor, there was no elevator, and there was no one to help me with my 125 pounds of luggage. The owners had left me an envelope with instructions and left the door to the room unlocked. Hm. On arrival, it was 1:30 in the morning and there was nothing for it but to quietly haul the stuff up myself. After all, if you can’t carry it, you probably shouldn’t pack it. I was starting to really dislike this 44-lb cooler of photography equipment except for the times it was assembled and underwater. Fortunately, I was used to it by now, so no one got hurt. Once upstairs, I thought about assembling the camera gear, cleaning O-Rings, and figuring out the strobes. But I got tired even thinking about it. I also knew I couldn’t charge anything without a power converter, and I didn’t know the state of the strobe batteries. Hm. Well, okay, how about just getting some sleep and taking the camera the following day? Oh yeah.

Before you know it, it was 6:50 AM and the Tusa Dive bus had arrived. Remarkably, I was up and out to meet it. I even had time for a sunrise photo or two with my phone out on the beach. No point in packing the big camera if it had to stay on the boat the whole time. I’d brought my snacks, but since the people at our next pick-up were late and needed more time, I managed to grab a latte at a local cafe. These people being late for the bus should have been a clue. But I am getting ahead of myself.

I was met at the pier and then directed on board. Once there, I found myself part of a well-oiled machine. Every day this company herds 60+ people onto their large boat, motors out to the outer Great Barrier Reef, presents a briefing during the long drive, puts half of those people in full-body lycra suits and scuba gear and sends them over the side. They put the other half into snorkels and send them over too. Remarkably, they get everyone back. It’s a lot of work. There is the organizing into dive groups, making sure everyone has their equipment, accommodating nitrox and self-guided divers who brought their own stuff along with folks who brought nothing. They photograph people, rent extra equipment and cameras as needed, and feed everyone not only breakfast but lunch, snacks & drinks. They even make sure you’re wearing your sunscreen and pass you some if you forgot. Mothers everywhere would be impressed. It was like a beehive.

We got paired up, and I had a dive partner that I’d met on the bus. He was a good dive buddy, made sure we did our buddy checks and he was paying a lot of attention to all that was going on. I felt good that someone so detail-oriented chose me as a partner. If only the rest of our little group of seven were so careful… Sigh. We got into the water, and it was busy. People didn’t really branch off and go in other directions right away, so the dive site was crowded. That’s never fun. As I got acclimated and down a few meters (we were not deep), I noticed that our dive master was physically pulling a woman out of the coral. She’d gotten herself and her tank stuck in it. Yes, a live reef. Well, maybe a little less alive now. At first, I hoped this was an aberration. I am not sure I’ve ever seen anyone get stuck like that. Accidents happen so I tried not to pass judgment, though this was kind of a bad one since the coral can die when you damage it that severely. Then the woman proceeded to whip out a little camera and start taking pictures of all kind of things, and she did so in a hurry and from far away (I don’t know how any of those photos could possibly come out well with this method). She swam into people and on top of people. She swam into the reef more than once. And then she got stuck in the coral physically again! By the time she had swum into me for the third time, I put my hand on her shoulder, shook my finger, gave her a firm look and pushed her away hard. She stayed away from me after that, at least. How on earth did this woman qualify for a diving certification? After watching her behavior further on board the boat, it was clear that she was totally thoughtless and self-involved. She ran over people on land too. And yes, you guessed it, she was one of the late ones from the morning bus.

The thing is, if you’re a diver, you have a responsibility to protect that which you go to see. If we as divers just willy-nilly damage the sea, then diving tourism will ruin all the beauty that it wants to enjoy. Coral can heal from this kind of damage but it’s like a cut to the bone every time we touch it or get equipment tangled in it. It’s not easy when you start diving to maintain control of yourself in the water, and it requires concentration. Control over your body in your surroundings is lesson number one and it should always come before photography. No one likes being run into repeatedly, and no one should feel good about reef damage. Please, if you take up diving, master yourself as much as you can before you bring in other distractions.

I myself was worried I might have a problem with the camera versus the diving. I hadn’t been diving since 2010, after all. And I’m still not as controlled as I would like to be. My partner on day two of the Australian reef was an incredible example of buoyancy control, but I am only partway there. So, in Kosrae I went without the camera until I was sure that I was comfortable with myself. And sometimes, even when the big housing was working correctly, I just stopped shooting for a while. Same with the little rental Lumix. Turn it off for a bit and “be here now” in your dive. If you see something amazing, you can turn the thing back on and shoot. Or, dive with a photography goal in mind, accomplish it, and then relax and enjoy yourself. After all, that’s why it’s called leisure diving!

Thankfully, the next day went much better after I talked to the staff on the boat about the previous situation. I was in a wonderful group and had a far more relaxed and secluded experience. My first two dives were wonderful, especially the second dive with the Navy mine clearance partner. By the time the third dive was available on day two, I was very tired and decided to simply rest instead. I figured I couldn’t top that second dive and I might as well quit while I was ahead. I fell asleep in my swimsuit on the bow of the boat. Can you imagine – the staff came out to make sure I’d put on sunscreen (I had). What a thoughtful group. Thank you Tusa for listening and giving me such a great day.

But back to Palm Cove for a moment. That first night, by the time I was dropped off and got an adapter from the front desk and found a restaurant, it was all I could not to fall asleep in the soup. I was exhausted. But it was awfully good soup. I went to a Palm Cove restaurant specializing in “Mod Oz” cuisine, across the little main street from the ocean. Mod Oz is usually seafood, though it can be meat (often the trendy pork belly), seasoned in a southeast Asian or Japanese kind of way, with an emphasis on vegetables and proteins rather than carbs. There are traditional western touches like ravioli too. I had a lot of this sort of food in Australia and it was delicious. It was neat to try out new sauces, new methods and old favorites re-imagined. Honestly, the food everywhere in Australia was delicious, and it seemed to me that good food was a high priority for people. The restaurant, like all the others in Palm Cove, had a large covered porch with seating, and outdoor tables beyond the porch. Warm open air flooded the evening. You could hear the waves and the happy voices of the other diners. It made me wish I had a friend here, but it was all families and couples. After traveling alone for ten days now, I was starting to feel it. Seeing them in their happiness made me wish I was a part of it. Instead, like single people everywhere, I went back to my little apartment and did the laundry. The next evening I tried a Thai place up the road while I wrote postcards (I know – will the romance never cease?). The Pad Thai was delicious, but expensive. Eating out in Australia is a costly proposition. Why? They pay their waitstaff a living wage, and they don’t tip. While it’s a little painful on the wallet, it’s not a bad idea because you get great service and better food as a result. After all, you can’t keep a bad restaurant open for long at those prices. Overall, I liked Palm Cove. It’s a pretty town, quiet but romantic and clean, with everything you need and nothing more.

After three nights, and some intensive scuba, it was time to move on. I can’t tell you how good it felt to have all my clothes clean and the diving portion of the vacation enjoyed but also ending. It meant that I could soon mail the camera enclosure back to Los Angeles and stop carrying a third bag. It meant I could start a whole new chapter of this voyage. Australia could show me what she was all about and after what I’d seen so far, I was more than ready. Let’s go!

Me on the right, chasing after the turtle for a photograph.  Courtesy of Calypso Reef Imagery

Me on the right, chasing after the turtle for a photograph. Courtesy of Calypso Reef Imagery

Typical front porch in Palm Cove at a hotel

Typical front porch in Palm Cove at a hotel

Children at the Palm Cove beach

Children at the Palm Cove beach

Tropical plants, Palm Cove

Tropical plants, Palm Cove

Flowers at Palm Cove

Flowers at Palm Cove

Eucalyptus at sunrise in Palm Cove

Eucalyptus at sunrise in Palm Cove

Palm Cove at sunrise

Palm Cove at sunrise

The Reef Fleet Pier at Cairns

The Reef Fleet Pier at Cairns

Feather stars, Great Barrier Reef

Feather stars, Great Barrier Reef

Coral, Great Barrier Reef

Coral, Great Barrier Reef

The view standing at my hotel

The view standing at my hotel

Posted in Australia, Far Far Away | Leave a comment

Off-Roading in a Honda Accord?

When I first got to Guam, I reveled in the high speed internet, the working telephone, the ability to rinse off all the soap and the shampoo in the shower, the clean linens and the A/C that smelled only very slightly of mildew. It was such a treat. I almost didn’t know what to do with myself. Fortunately, all that changed when I finally got out of that oh-so-comfortable bed and rented a car.

I mentioned earlier that you could go out to Ritidian point. It apparently has a beautiful and mainly deserted beach, but it was one that I was unable to reach. Not for lack of trying, just lack of information. The public access gate closed at 4 PM, but I did not know that until I got back; instead I drove around a lot and was confused. You see, the reason that the beach is deserted is because it involves some off-road driving to get there. Did you know you could off-road in a rented Honda Accord? You can!

I first turned onto the road marked “Ritidian Unit” and wondered if I was in the right place. My map study before leaving the hotel indicated that this was the correct location. There were no 4g smartphone Google maps available here so I had to think for myself – uh oh. I had the right spot, but since there were markers every 100 yards informing me that it was a US Air Force base requiring visitors to have permission from the commanding officer, I got a little worried. I did not have permission. I certainly had not spoken with anyone in command. I’d have remembered that. Now what? Well, I turned around and read the sign again and it said also that the Preserve was this way too, and I also noticed a couple of locals on their way back out. So, maybe it’s not a shooting offense to be driving there? My welcome was confirmed when I passed a security vehicle with American GIs in it who returned my wave and smile. Okay – whew – uh oh – that pothole is as big as my tire!! The road was terrible. There were car-eating potholes and they were so close together as to be impossible to avoid. Before long, a dirt track started by the side of the road. I thought it over, looked at the broken pieces of pavement sure to do damage to the wheels and maybe the fenders, and moved over to the red dirt road instead.

It was slow going, but safer, and the car was fine. This continued on for miles to a lookout point that had an amazing view followed by an amazing decent down the road. Fortunately, the steep part had decent paving. When I got to the bottom of the road, I could choose from two paths at a fork. The one path was gated and closed (this was the public access road, I later realized) and the other was open. I took the open path. I say path because at this point the road was mostly gone. I kept driving, carefully and slowly. Eventually after another two miles or so, every path and every clearing was marked “No Trespassing” and “Private Land” or “Private Road”. There was no hope. Nothing for it but to turn around, I guess. That was easier said than done since by now the road was one lane, surrounded by jungle trees, and narrow, but I managed it in a clearing. Me and the Honda worked our slow way back up to the lookout, took some pictures, and then re-navigated the red-dirt road out to the highway. Sigh. In a situation like this, sometimes you just have to accept defeat. So much for those sunset pictures on the beach I was hoping for. Ah well. I decided to indulge myself and go have a manicure at the Micronesia Mall. I am disappointed about missing the beach, but I am still happy I gave it a try.

My rental car with the local flora

My rental car with the local flora

The red dirt road at Ritidian Point, aka Andersen Air Force Base

The red dirt road at Ritidian Point, aka Andersen Air Force Base

The narrow dirt road at the end of the jungle

The narrow dirt road at the end of the jungle

This is the beach - this is as close as I got to viewing it, despite being on the road pictured.

This is the beach – this is as close as I got to viewing it, despite being on the road pictured.

See what I mean about the sign?

See what I mean about the sign?

Zoomba at the Micronesia Mall (the cheaper second cousin of DFS Galleria)

Zoomba at the Micronesia Mall (the cheaper second cousin of DFS Galleria)

The view from the Westin - not quite the view from Ritidian Point, but not bad.

The view from the Westin – not quite the view from Ritidian Point, but not bad.

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Welcome to America: Guam, USA

What a relief. After a week of mildew, mosquitoes and nearly no communications, I am in the land of high-speed Internet, regular cell phone reception, nice linens, clean water and safe food (as long as you don’t count irradiated fish in the Pacific). I’d have been happy to go back to Kosrae but since there were no flights in that direction for a few days, I got a chance to learn about Guam. The people here are helpful, nice, and have a great sense of humor. I like Guam quite a bit, although I understand living here is less easy than visiting. The tourism is a bit of an eye-opener too.

The Westin hotel was where I stayed: a 21-story building on Gun Beach, and not cheap, with a high-decibel megaphone intrusion from the carnival up the street. Yeah you read that right, a carnival. Turns out that Guam is an inexpensive destination for a lot of Japanese tourists. It’s sort of their Acapulco. Young Japanese women were dressed like $5 streetwalkers in the elevators with their boyfriends, and all kinds of…. interesting(?) businesses were nearby to cater to the men who had arrived without ladies of their own. It is crudely said that Japanese men come here for the two G’s: gonorrhea and guns. Guessing from the businesses around the Westin, there’s something to that idea, unfortunately. There were lots of “gentlemen’s clubs” and massage parlors surrounding my hotel, complete with burly guys trying to get lone male pedestrians to become customers. There were also at least two gun ranges within 100 yards. In Japan, it is not possible a regular person to own a firearm, I understand, so I guess it’s a bit of a thrill to try one out abroad. All these sin businesses surrounding the outer hotel grounds made me a bit uncomfortable. Mostly because I had to walk past them at night alone and feel those hawkers (pimps?) watch me go past. I looked back with hostility and undisguised contempt. Once I’d walked past that section of the strip, however, I found a whole other kind of disturbing landscape: a shopping mecca. Normally this wouldn’t bother me at all, in fact I might even like it, but this particular place was different. I want to call it an opium den, but that’s not strictly accurate. There was a DFS Galleria, the original, I believe, with a two-story Hermes shop along with any other designer you can think of (Prada, Chanel, Burberry – the list goes on and on). Don’t even get me started on the jewelry and watch shops (Piaget, Breitling, Cartier). There were special shuttle buses that picked up and dropped off from the hotels. The shopping complex was huge, and I am only listing what I could see from the outside. And, get this, these exclusive, normally quite snobby shops, were open until 11 pm. Seriously! There were ladies all over the beachfront drive with very fancy shopping bags. I guess the female Japanese tourists are in Guam for the D & G, not the G & G. Maybe if I’d had $50,000 to blow, I’d have been pretty happy about this scene, but since I didn’t, it just seemed excessive.

Fortunately, Guam has the sense to keep all of this activity penned up in one place: Gun Beach. There really isn’t any of this folderol anywhere else. So, what happens when you get out of Gun Beach? Plenty! If you rent a car, in a couple of hours you can see the whole island. You can go down to Pika’s café, or to Proa restaurant, you can drive to the northernmost point of the island (Ritidian Point through Andersen Air Force Base), or go all the way along the east coast, past Guam University, down to the southernmost point of the island, Umatac. I wanted to head to Umatac and thanks to the kind advice from my waiter at Pika’s, I took the prettiest route to get there. People are so nice here! Umatac is where Magellan landed on Guam, starving and miserable. He was fed and cared for. But he got his skiff taken from him in exchange for the food, water and succor he received and, in what I can only hope was a terrible misunderstanding, he declared the islanders evil thieves and proceeded to burn their village and kill the people who’d helped him. Magellan renamed the island “Isla de los Ladrones” (island of thieves). Later the Spanish came back here and built an outpost as part of their Manilla/Acapulco trade route. I guess “don’t feed the explorers” is the lesson from that story. But the Guamanians are so non-confrontational that it sort of figures that they’d have some trouble with pesky colonials as a result. I understand from some US Navy folks stationed here that all of this kindness and gentleness doesn’t translate to everything working perfectly. I also heard that recent crime includes gangs of big local guys beating the daylights out of soldiers who are out in numbers. Like, put in Intensive Care, beatings. I am thinking those guys might not be Guamanians. They might be from a rougher island. But no one knows. I was lucky not to run into anything like this.

The southern part of Guam, near Umatac, is regarded as the last of the real “Guam” Guam, and it’s pretty pastoral. I liked it. The road along the eastern coast is mainly small villages, one after another, getting down to cows, water buffalo and tractors in the road as you go further south. The little kids wave at you if you wave, and everyone smiles. There were some funny signs and sayings along the way: “Keep Calm and Pray the Rosary”, “I Pity the Fool who Litters in my Village” and finally, “Aspire 2 Inspire B 4 U Expire”. I was grinning all the way through the drive. I even stopped at Guam University and picked up some frangipani blossoms to put on the dashboard (good air fresheners).

A few miles down from Gun Beach, and between a big military base and the tourist area is a pretty state memorial park for the War of the Pacific. Near the park is a little museum with some local history about World War II. I learned a few things. Guam has been a US Territory since the Spanish American war in 1898. The Guamanian people have suffered a lot from various invaders over the years, starting with the Spanish, and the WWII Japanese were scary occupiers who committed many atrocities on this island. Their commander was in fact tried and executed by the US on Guam for war crimes. After the island was finally liberated by the US Marines, the locals were only too happy to go out and hunt down the Japanese resistance on the island. For non-confrontational people, this is pretty serious. Also, I learned that the Guamanian people kept symbols of the US (e.g. our flag) hidden in hopes that we would return, though if the Japanese had found these things, the owners would have been killed for having them. Guamanian life under Japanese occupation was pretty bad. You can read more about that here if you’re interested.

What I found amazing was the fact that some individual Japanese soldiers, once they were driven back into the jungle during the US retaking of the island, dug themselves in rather than suffer the humiliation of surrender or defeat. They lived off the land for a very long time. A couple of men were found in 1962, and another in 1972 (!) living in deep caves that were cleverly excavated and well covered up. That’s 28 years after the US liberation of Guam. Twenty eight years living in the jungle alone – I cannot imagine. The last man was captured while fishing one night, was in remarkably good health and had known about the other two guys found ten years prior. In good Guam fashion, the men who captured him did not hurt him and treated him well until he could be turned over to US authorities. He was honored by Japan and the US for his dedication to his duty and his code of ethics. But Japan knew there were men like him all over the Pacific. In fact, after the war, Japanese citizens worried about those who followed the Bushido code and had dug in. Ordinary citizens would visit Guam, and leave copies of the Japanese daily newspapers and the nation’s flag in plastic packets in the jungles. They were trying to make sure the hidden soldiers knew that the war was over and Japan was changed. It is unclear whether they were believed. The Bushido code is impressive. Recently in the news, such a soldier hidden in the Philippines died at the age of 91. He was found in 1974 and refused to surrender until his former commanding officer came from civilian life to relieve him.

After a long afternoon of education and exploring, it was time for dinner. I wanted to try pokey while I was in the island, which is basically tuna salad but with raw tuna. Even though I know the fish is at risk given its proximity to the continuously leaking Japanese nuclear reactor, I made an exception. I asked where to get the best in town and the ladies at the Westin front desk pointed me to the marina and the fisherman’s coop. I managed to find the place and for a mere $5, got the pokey, stopped at the Japanese restaurant in the hotel and got $3 worth of rice, went upstairs and had myself a delicious dinner. For me, Guam was that kind of place – good advice, good hospitality, and a comfy hotel. Although it’s not perfect; I still had to watch out for the pimps.

On the east side of the island

On the east side of the island

The fisherman's coop.  I was trying shoot discretely.

The fisherman’s coop. Blurred because I was trying shoot discretely.

A moving article at the war museum

A moving article at the war museum

Japanese memorabilia at the war museum

Japanese memorabilia at the war museum

Sunset on the southwestern side of Guam

Sunset on the southwestern side of Guam

The local Catholic cemetery near Umatac

The local Catholic cemetery near Umatac

A man and his kids out in the afternoon - everyone waved later

A man and his kids out in the afternoon – everyone waved later

The southern part of Guam

The southern part of Guam

The Pacific near the southeast coast of Guam

The Pacific near the southeast coast of Guam

The main road through the island

The main road through the island

Lunch at Proa - the BBQ'd chicken was delicious!

Lunch at Proa – the BBQ’d chicken was delicious!

My favorite air fresheners

My favorite air fresheners

Guam University

Guam University

The view on approaching Guam island

The view on approaching Guam island

View from the Westin

View from the Westin

Posted in Far Far Away | 1 Comment

Underwater Photography is Hard, Especially in a Graveyard.

Graveyard? Yes, a graveyard. The wrecks in the lagoon of Chuuk, Micronesia, are many and not all parts are accessible for removal of the human remains therein. Coral grows like wildflowers on these ships, tanks, cars and airplanes, and hides the skulls of the men who perished – sometimes. I thought going to Chuuk to see the wrecks would be a diver’s paradise, and perhaps for some it is. For me, it was disquieting. I am not comfortable with this much death around me, deep underwater in the dark. Though I dived the Yamagiri Maru this morning, I declined the tour of the engine room. My divemaster Sam said that the congealed skull and arm bones of the engineer could still be seen pressed against the glass where he died. I didn’t want sight that haunting me. You can only imagine that this mood is not conducive to concentration or learning new skills, such as working with a big fat camera housing and its contents. I tried, hard, but images didn’t come out all that well on this dive. It did not help that I was dehydrated and tired. I ended up sitting out the second tank dive from dizziness and honestly, I am not sorry. Maybe I am getting old, but my instincts said it was not a good idea to go.

Now, about this underwater photography I’ve been trying. I think I mentioned earlier that I have been hauling around a cooler chest containing 44 pounds of underwater camera gear on this trip. That does not include the weight of the actual camera or its lenses, or my suitcase, only the underwater equipment. There have been several unpleasant, wheedling, truculent discussions at the United Airlines counter at every point, involving the $100 additional checked bag fee that they seem to want to charge at every single leg of this island-shuttle journey, even though human beings in pressurized cabins travel for less on some of the legs! I upgraded to business class on the Guam flight (for $49) and it came with bag check perks. I saved $51 and got a meal.

All of this madness started when I had the idea of taking pictures of all the scuba diving I was going to do. I had thought of buying a cheaper camera than my professional camera and a housing for that, but if I had, I would have spent quite a bit for something I would not use often and a camera that I might not be very happy with. I’m spoiled by this best-of-class Nikon, and I wasn’t including accessories like strobe lights into the pricing of the “cheaper” choice. So, upon reflection, I called down to Los Angeles where you can get anything photographic for rent. There, I found A B Sea Camera and rented a large, heavy, serious camera enclosure, strobe lights, chargers, backup units, two types of “ports” (the bit your lens sees through), and zoom attachments. I also rented a wide-angle zoom lens from my favorite camera shop in Palo Alto, Keeble & Schucat. Some of the other divers said it looked like equipment out of “The Abyss”. All of this rental gear (insured, with a deposit) has been with me across Micronesia and down to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

The whole kit came without a lanyard or attaching mechanism to my dive vest. That in itself was nerve-racking. I mean it’s not as if the deep blue sea has an easily accessible bottom if I drop this very expensive housing with my very expensive camera and very expensive lens on it. It’s almost as if A B Sea wants me to buy them a new housing, eh? I managed to borrow a hooking retractable line in Kosrae, and a latch hook and some thin rope in Chuuk, and finally another elastic line and a carabineer’s clip in Cairns. It was distressing to think about where this pricey bit of kit could end up!

To first prepare the housing, and the lights and the cables, you have to carefully remove several silicone O-Rings, clean them and their channels and their adjoining areas, then lubricate them with the correct lubricant and put them back in. You must do all of that without hurting or nicking the O-Rings in any way, all the while on the lookout for a grain of sand or a piece of hair, because that is enough to flood the housing and completely ruin both its electronics and your camera at once. That grand feat accomplished, you put it all together, with your camera inside it set pretty much how you think you’ll want it, test fire that, and then you submerge it into some water in a safe location near a towel in case you missed a seal. Best to find any problems while you’re on land and can immediately address them, rather than on the boat or worse, ten meters underwater. Assuming the camera stays submerged without a steady stream of bubbles leaving the case, or a big blob of water driven to the top of the housing, and assuming your camera is correctly set up, you’re good to go. Finding a safe place for this large, expensive unit on a boat in a third world country is easier said than done, but you’d better manage it. I saw someone else using a large thermal insulated lunch bag/cooler and I think that’s the way to go.

When you do get the enclosed camera to the dive site and it is handed to you over the side of the boat (oh please don’t let that fall!), the real challenges begin. Before you even think of descending, attach that thing to your vest! After that, take a calming breath and head down. Now, what are the water conditions and how deep is the dive? Is the visibility poor? Is there a lot of floating particulate matter in the water? Is the coral spawning right now? Is it sunny up top? What kind of thing did you want to photograph and how, exactly did you want to light it? Were you planning to use manual focus? The list goes on. Then there is the diving aspect of it all. You can no longer count on your feet to keep you steady or standing in one place and instead you must control your swimming to be as still as possible in the water while working with a camera, not touching (or killing) the coral despite needing to be nearly on top of your subject, and not kicking up any sand or dust with your big swim fins. You have to control your breathing so as not to hold your breath when you release the shutter or compose the picture, because if you hold your breath while scuba diving you can get a lung embolism (that’s bad). Breath control also relates to buoyancy control: if you breathe in a lot of air, you will rise, and when you exhale it, you will fall. That’s going to affect your photograph and maybe smack you into your subject and injure or kill the coral. The only up side is that your camera shake is minimal because the water will hold the camera for you just a little bit. Of course, now, you are moving, the fish is moving, and the ocean is “blowing” your subject around, so you’d better use a faster shutter speed or it’ll all be blurry. Of course, it could be all be blurry, or horribly speckled, anyway if the water is full of particles or if you cannot set your autofocus the way you want to or any other number of things. If you linger too long you might lose your dive group (bad) or irritate them, and you might use up way too much air because you’re not as calm as you might otherwise be. On the other hand, you might be diving with a bunch of people who are still learning and so kick up lots of sand, make a lot of bubbles, swim right on top of you, and otherwise mess up your shot. You never know. A lot can go wrong. A lot has to happen for things go right.

I had a few sharp images from the first dive in Kosrae, but it varied. The second dive did not yield anything at all because for some reason, my memory card did not fail over to the second card, and it said it was full. I had to hand the camera back up to the boat crew after about two minutes and just forget it, because I couldn’t break the housing seal to change the card. Once back on land, it was fine. Go figure. The third dive, in Chuuk, gave me some decent silhouettes of the wreck Yamagiri Maru, but none of my fish and coral shots turned out sharp at all, and it’s because the autofocus requires intervention and recomposition in most cases. It’s hard to compose and focus, etc, through a camera viewfinder with a mask on while trying not to swim into anything at the same time (and let’s not forget the dead guys…). I wasn’t sure what my problem was in Chuuk’s images, but the nice owner of A B Sea gave me some clear and definite help after I emailed a sample image. He was sure. I got the lights out and tried again on the Great Barrier Reef, but only on day two of the GBR. You see, I’d gotten to the hotel at 2 AM on the night before, and the dive bus came for me at 6:50 AM. I didn’t have the wherewithal to handle the camera housing. So on day one of the reef diving, I rented a Panasonic Lumix in a waterproof case case and used it instead. This was much easier, but with varied results due to the limitations of the settings, and the fact that the red focus light seemed to scatter all over the housing and get into some of the pictures. Of course, the images were not saved as “RAW”, so they aren’t as easy to successfully edit: they come already compressed and data has been lost. Still, I’m glad the boat had an easy rental because at least I got some images.

Why not more? Well, on day two of the Great Barrier Reef, somehow at depth my lens became slightly loosened from my camera body. I imagine it was not totally clicked in when I set it up, but it felt pretty secure to me. That meant that the electronics from the camera to the lens were only periodically in sync and so there was effectively NO autofocus! There was no way to get any good photos without autofocus since I could not physically use the manual focus (it was inside the housing). Too bad too, because that day was the best diving I’d had. I got partnered up with a guy who is a Navy mine clearing diver for a living, and he was an awesome buddy. I spotted what I thought was a nudibranch, and he, with his incredible control underwater, got right next to it and discovered it was actually two nudibranches, one on top of the other! I think there might have been new nudibranches on the way! We saw a nice big clam, went past some big and beautiful structures of coral, including a lot of bright blue staghorn coral, and there were simply tons of fish. I wish I’d had a working camera instead of a heavy and expensive piece of ballast, but you don’t always get what you wish for in underwater photography. In the big picture though, any day on the Great Barrier Reef is a good day, with or without photos.

My experience so far gives me a great deal more respect for underwater photographers. I had some to begin with, but frankly, I had no idea what was involved beyond a lot of strobes and expensive equipment. There was a photographer on the Australian boat who went so far as to actually feed a turtle to keep him interested. Talk about knowing your subject!

None of my success at all would have been possible without the help of a very nice young Australian photographer named Matt Shepherd. He was on a long visit at the Nautilus Resort at Kosrae and he took over an hour to sit with me, teach me O-Ring maintenance, and show me how my kit worked. We discussed the challenges of underwater photography, some basics to start with, and he was interested in how everything went for me when I got back. I cannot thank him enough. He was patient, kind, modest and refused to accept my offer of buying his dinner. I can’t remember the last time anyone was this helpful just to be nice and talk about a subject they liked. Matt probably saved me the entire cost of the rental because the contents of that cooler chest were pretty intimidating. I might not have been brave enough to try it at all without his guidance. Matt does a lot of underwater imaging so later I had a look at his web site. And then I was really blown away. His work is beautiful and different, he has won many awards and done several commercial jobs and gallery shows. If you’re interested, please have a wander to http://www.aquaseen.com or check out his most current work at Aquaseen on Facebook. It’s worth your time.

In the meantime, here are some of my attempts. They are shot variously with a Nikon D3 & Aquatica housing, and the Panasonic Lumix.

Lettuce coral in Kosrae.

Lettuce coral in Kosrae.

My fellow diver Jana in Kosrae.

My fellow diver Jana in Kosrae. Models are more cooperative than fish.

A school of Sweetlips, outer Great Barrier Reef

A school of Sweetlips, outer Great Barrier Reef

The turtle staring at the big camera - if only it were my camera!  Outer Great Barrier Reef

The turtle staring at the big camera – if only it were my camera! Outer Great Barrier Reef

Soft coral - what a difference a light makes.  Outer Great Barrier Reef

Soft coral – what a difference a light makes. Outer Great Barrier Reef

Christmas tree worms in blue.  Outer Great Barrier Reef

Christmas tree worms in blue. Outer Great Barrier Reef

Lucy the dive boat photographer feeding the turtle. See how much debris the others are kicking up?  And the red dots from the lower quality housing?  Outer Great Barrier Reef.

Lucy the dive boat photographer feeding the turtle. See how much debris the others are kicking up? And the red dots from the lower quality housing? Outer Great Barrier Reef.

Anemone fish!  Outer Great Barrier Reef

Anemone fish! Outer Great Barrier Reef

A mollusk in the coral.  Outer Great Barrier Reef

A mollusk in the coral. Outer Great Barrier Reef

Kosrae coral garden

Kosrae coral garden

A sponge (I think).  Outer Great Barrier Reef

A sponge (I think). Outer Great Barrier Reef

Finally, the turtle came my way when the others had gotten bored.  Outer Great Barrier Reef

Finally, the turtle came my way when the others had gotten bored. Outer Great Barrier Reef

Anemone fish in Kosrae

Anemone fish in Kosrae

Chuuk at 70 feet down.

Chuuk at 70 feet down.

Corals on the hull of the Yamagiri Maru

Corals on the hull of the Yamagiri Maru

The bow of the Yamagiri Maru, I believe.

The bow of the Yamagiri Maru, I believe.

Coral growing on the ship

Coral growing on the ship

Sam blowing rings at the safety stop.

Sam blowing rings at the safety stop.

Some sort of gun part, now full of coral "flowers", Yamagiri Maru

Some sort of gun part, now full of coral “flowers”, Yamagiri Maru

Entering the Yamagiri Maru, over 20 meters deep.

Entering the Yamagiri Maru, over 20 meters deep.

Wet camera port on the waters of Chuuk.

Wet camera port on the waters of Chuuk.

Testing for the first camera handoff underwater in Kosrae

Testing for the first camera handoff underwater in Kosrae

Kosrae coral head

Kosrae coral head

Anemone, fish & divers, Kosrae

Anemone, fish & divers, Kosrae

Posted in Far Far Away, Photography | 1 Comment

Chuuk is a Wreck

The island of Chuuk in Micronesia is known for its shipwrecks. Not its hotel-wrecks or its town-wrecks. But it turns out to have a few of those latter items as well, unfortunately. It was once, I think, a pretty island. I mean, look at it: this shot is just an islet on the approach over the harbor and wow – we haven’t even hit the highlights of the place. Beautiful, right?
chuuk-2394
However, it’s been overrun by at least a couple of different armies, poverty and lately a bunch of guys who dress and sometimes act like thugs. If I had to sum it up for you, I’d say it’s like a saloon town in the wild west but with frangipani and very friendly little kids. I don’t know how that’s possible, but here it is. The men were throwing homemade live fireworks at our van on the way in since it was New Year’s Eve, for instance. The other divers here seem to love the place, but many of them are, I am afraid, pretty rough-edged people themselves. Not everyone of course, but it’s an odd bunch. The guy at the front desk is very nice though and so was my divemaster (macho, but nice underneath), so I really don’t know what to make of things. A complicated place, this Chuuk. To complicate things further it’s pronounced “Chewk” but the Aussies say “Truck”.

The hotel has seen better days, probably ten years ago, and while I know this is not a wealthy island with lots of resources, I still feel that people could make repairs successfully in some cases. A tube of caulking, some bleach, or just cleaning up other people’s hairs from the bathroom, for instance, would go a long way toward improvement. They managed this in villages in East Africa and Cambodia, though I admit, not so much in India, so I know it’s possible. As a result of my travels, I believe this lack of maintenance is not from being a subsistence culture but simply from a lack of caring for things when they are rotting, and shifting the responsibility off onto someone else someday maybe. The garden looks very fine, so someone has some pride in it, and they are carefully building a nice new museum next door. But the hotel rooms? Ugh. The towels stank of old left-in-the-wet-too-long and I was concerned about the insects that would enter in the night. Electricity was spotty in the first 30 minutes of arrival. It smelled so bad in this room that I went out and gathered a bunch of plumeria in hopes they would improve the situation. Unfortunately, three hours later the poor plumeria hadn’t made a dent.

When I arrived, I was wondering just how, exactly, this place would get worse. I knew it would, but I did not know just how it would happen. And then the bed was clammy. This is not easy to accomplish – plastic was involved somewhere, on top of the bedspread I’d guess. The remote control for the A/C went completely blank with its digital controls all wiped (battery problem, front desk closed) so it was stuck on a rather cold temperature with a strong fan, and blowing right on my head so hard my eyes watered. I was hoping the power would go out and take the A/C with it, but no such luck. Even directly in the path of the aircon, I tried not to breathe through my mouth because I could taste the mold spoors. If I moved away from the draft, it stank to high heaven of mildew, and the other bed, which also stank, was next to a jalousie window. That’s a louvered window that doesn’t close, by the way, with no screen, and it lets in mosquitoes. Whoever invented the jalousie window should be forced to sleep next to one in the tropics with no nets. Having already been eaten by half the bugs in Kosrae, I stayed away from this window to make the Chuuk bugs work a little harder. Unfortunately they were up to the challenge. The bathroom was, well, revolting with its floor vinyl split and starting to come up, and a shower that was half rotten. Thank heaven I packed shower shoes, but I was still so grossed out I didn’t shower for two days. There was no bottled water available for purchase after dinner and I had to take a pill with water they said they had filtered. I felt I was taking a poor chance. I didn’t get the impression that the maintenance on those filters was exactly A-1 based on the rest of the state of the place, but maybe the gardener’s in charge of it so it’s okay? My cases, bags and equipment was zipped as a precaution against roaches, but there weren’t any, even late at night when I suddenly lit the bathroom (preparing to jump). At least there was that saving grace. The sheets were so scratchy and the bed so clammy that it aggravated my bug bites. I had to go into the case again and get the anti-itch cream, then lock it all up again afterward. Obviously I was on high alert for ick.

But there wasn’t as much ick as I thought. Instead, there were drums. It was New Year’s Eve, and the whole place was partying. I was so tired I’d gone to bed early, which is unlike me especially on the last day of the year. I was awakened several times in the night even with my earplugs to the sound of homemade drums, made from garbage can lids, scuba tanks, whatever was metal and would carry sound. The drummers were decent and it wasn’t a din but rather a solemn straight rhythm. It was always just one guy with his improvised percussion walking past the room, down the path or along the beach. This continued for days. Eventually I came to rather like it.

The part that gets me about Chuuk is that the people are really nice, but it’s just hard to cope with this kind of mess. I hate to report on them like this because I know it would hurt their feelings. It’s funny to see big guys dressed up like they are about to knock over a liquor store get out of a car looking all tough and then go hug their mothers and sisters on the curb. But that’s Chuuk. Tough exterior and who gives a darn look, but somehow they do care. I wish they’d just realize that repairing things when they break is cool. Really it is! C’mon, Chuuk, try it! I could brush this under the rug and simply not tell you about it, but it made a real impact on my trip. There is no question that it changed my plans. I just couldn’t deal with this hotel any longer than strictly necessary – no diving is worth this kind of slime, I am sorry to say. So, I went for a dive in the morning and when I got back called American Express to request a change in ticketing: Guam, please, ASAP. There was a flight available two days earlier than my original ticket and I got myself a seat.

I hoped that perhaps as a former US Trust Territory, Chuuk would be decently wired. Nope. It’s still an island in the tropics, and not a current military base, so there is nearly no Internet. I didn’t have more than ten minutes’ cell phone reception through my stay, and you cannot make an 800 number call from Chuuk, even if you’re willing to accept the charges yourself. To say it was a challenge to reach American Express is an understatement: by the time I’d figured out a number that was considered dial-able, and gotten a hold of someone who could help, they could barely hear me, over a course of three phone calls on $10 prepaid cards (plural). It’s like being in 1998 – welcome to Chuuk, where the local time is approximately six hours and 15 years earlier.

One good thing I can tell you about, beyond the diving, is this: people are mostly nice. Now, understand that there are some bad guys in Chuuk. They style themselves just like gang-bangers in LA and Stockton and I guess they think they are pretty bad-ass. Crime is scary here, I understand, and I was advised not to leave my hotel, especially after dark. But those guys aren’t everywhere. The ladies are very kind, the children are sweet and always smiling, and some of the men are nice too. For example, they came to replace the very bad smelling towels with some that also smelled bad. They had apparently run out of fabric softener/freshener and that’s why the smell wasn’t covered over by perfume. After I told them again that I really couldn’t stand it, the housekeeping ladies went on a little mission to find me some better towels and they succeeded. What showed up was nice smelling – good thing too because I finally ended sleeping with a towel over my head to thwart the A/C. The lady waiting tables at dinner made a good recommendation and told me about tonight’s fresh fish, which was pretty tasty. The pancakes the next day tasted like last night’s chicken, so do stick to the grilled fish if you visit. The guy at the desk saw that it was getting late, I had not eaten, and he came over to make sure I didn’t miss dinner. And he helped me make my phone calls to AmEx, which would not have been accomplished otherwise, I am certain. Sam, my divemaster, came over to the hotel to check on me when I was feeling ill after the first dive. He was worried I might have a decompression illness so he came by to make sure I was okay and said to come get some oxygen if it was not clearing up. Down deep, these people are still caring like the islanders I met in Kosrae. It’s the superficial parts and the bad eggs that need some tending to.

If Chuuk ever cleans up, and I hope it does, it’ll be because of the good hearts in its people.

Junkyard or neighborhood?  Hm.

Junkyard or neighborhood? Hm.

Just next to the hotel, life is not easy.

Just next to the hotel, life is not easy.

It's beautiful if you only look at the silhouette.

It’s beautiful if you only look at the silhouette.

The main road - really.

The main road – really.

The hope of frangipanni

The hope of frangipanni

Posted in Far Far Away | 2 Comments

Karibu Kosrae

I know, I am mixing Swahili and Micronesian. Sorry. But to me, it’s right. Karibu is the Swahili word for “you are welcome” or “you are welcome to …”. My experience with Karibu in Tanzania, Africa, has taught me that if someone really means Karibu, it’s pretty fantastic. It means family, a real home and the open kindness you’d expect from people who love you. Karibu is all of that and so is Kosrae, Micronesia.

Kosrae is a beautiful island. It is also rather impoverished. There are concrete block homes with tin sheeting and tarps to make up the roof and walls, most with dead appliances and rotting cars in the yard. Several buildings are abandoned completely because a just few years ago, there was an exodus. As is typical on small islands, the government was the main employer, but in paying all these extra people, the government went nearly broke, so they were forced to drastically reduce staff. The result was that about a third of the population of Kosrae emigrated to Hawaii and left their buildings vacant.

Of course, like any foreign country, it’s different here. I didn’t think twice about it until I talked to another American. It was anonymously pointed out that a few things would certainly not pass muster with US suburban homeowner’s associations. Tombs in the front yard, for instance, would be discussed. The people here bury their dead in decorated white-painted, above-ground concrete enclosures and sometimes it’s a large grouping, just steps from the front door. There are dogs running loose in the streets, and little children too. It’s important to watch out for them if you’re driving because the road is just another playground to them. The HOA would definitely print something in their newsletter about keeping your loved ones out of the road. Other distinctive cultural features include religion and morality. Everyone goes to church on Sunday. They sing all the time at their work and in their homes and even more at church. No noisy work happens on Sunday and there is no drinking allowed anywhere that day. There’s no scuba diving that day, but socializing, snorkeling and eating out are all acceptable. The land itself is spectacular: lush and ripe, full of bananas, tangerines, breadfruit, verdant jungle growth, mountains and water. It’s all pretty restful and it feels very safe.

When our flight arrived in Kosrae, the passengers all went to their respective microbuses. I found the nice man from the Nautilus and got my bags loaded up. Before you know it there were six of us on the way to the hotel. Banana trees were whizzing by on the side of the road and the ocean was in sight. We arrived, I got a room, and went in, wondering what I would find. It was not the Ritz, but it was exactly what was needed. It was clean, there was fresh, filtered water in a pitcher in the mini-fridge, the room had air conditioning and new, good-smelling fluffy towels with a red hibiscus laying on top. It was pleasant and cool and I felt I’d be comfortable there.

Now, to matters scuba! It was out to the pool to get some help changing the battery on my dive computer and to discuss some a refresher course. Doug the innkeeper and divemaster had the computer’s battery and O-ring changed out in a matter of minutes, in part because he had exactly the right tools for this job. I did not, so it was a good thing I got help. If you don’t know, a dive computer is a pressure- and water-proof gauge you wear on your wrist or put into an instrument case and take down with you when you dive. It keeps track of your depth, your time at each depth, and it beeps loudly at you when you are about to do something stupid that could endanger your life or your lungs. It keeps track of how much decompression time you need between dives, between depths, and between airplane flights. It means you don’t need to carry dive tables, a slate and a watch to do the same job yourself. This is a useful item to have and it’s one of the few pieces of diving equipment that I own (instead of renting). Now that my computer was back in order, it was time to strap into a tank and practice in the pool. While I was there with Doug and his son (and divemaster) Josh, I re-learned some things, then just plain learned some things, and then passed the skills tests. Doug and Josh are thorough teachers – you could do a lot worse than to learn from them.

Test passed, I enjoyed the pool a bit and then dried off. We discussed my underwater camera rig and Monday’s dive. It was just too late in the day to get a night dive in, since it would soon be sunset and it’s hard to get the boat to the site in the dark. That meant waiting an extra day since tomorrow was Sunday, the aforementioned day of scuba rest. Ah well. I could use some rest. On Sunday I thought I might hear from Pam when I finally got myself up and out of the room by 11:00 (!). But Pam had gone to church with the lady from the plane, and had been admonished seriously that even though she, Pam, was awake, I might not be and they were not going to disturb me! Isn’t that thoughtful? But I was sorry to have missed them. Instead, I saw my fellow passengers when I went to dinner. I met more of their family and we had a nice greeting. As an aside, how is it a little Australian-run inn in Kosrae makes a great pizza? I have no idea, but boxes were flying out of the kitchen, and my pie was delicious. Where was I? Oh yes – Sunday afternoon. There was not much to do except maybe some snorkeling. I thought I’d try the famous Blue Hole.

It’s a big round area about 50 or 60 feet deep in a coral clearing, between the ocean breakers and the land. I borrowed a mask, snorkel and fins from the dive shop and went across the road to the beach. I got in the water, and started out. It was about 200 yards to the big Blue Hole. But the tide was high, it was grey outside with rain on the way and there was nary a soul in the ocean. I was alone. I was struck with a sudden fear of being washed all the way to Australia with no one the wiser. If I’d been with friends I would not have been afraid, but I was not with anyone at all. I became rather seriously worried and decided to turn back. I hope you aren’t too disappointed with me, but this snorkel expedition just didn’t look like a good idea. On the way back, I managed to lose a small but important clip on my fin, and it further added to my sense of unluck. I tried to salvage it but it was so cloudy that even in two feet of water that I couldn’t see a thing. Maybe I wasn’t missing much in snorkeling after all. I went back across the street, returned my gear and fessed up to losing a piece, and with my head a little low, took a dip in the pool.

Then something remarkable happened. A camera guide found me. Here I’d been fretting about how to deal with this cooler chest of equipment and the answer showed up in front of me. But you will read more about that in the next post – the one about underwater photography. We spent a couple hours working with the equipment, and then I ate dinner and closed out the evening. It was starting to look like Kosrae was charmed.

On Monday, we had a couple of decent dives – no great shakes but a good way to get my fins under me again (it’s been three years since my last dive, in Zanzibar where I got horribly sick). Many of the other divers were new divers and it was best to keep things simple. I was new in a way too with my rented underwater camera gear, so while I would have liked to see more fish and a more lively site, I was happy not to have to work too hard either. Tired and wet, we returned to the hotel where I filled out my logbook. After photo uploads, I found I still had a little time left before sundown. I had to leave the next day and I didn’t want to go without shooting a little of the island’s beauty. I hired one of the rental cars at the hotel and went out to explore. Still, I must admit to an ulterior motive: I heard there was a place that might carry anti-itch cream for my mosquito bites. While I was out there, I not only found the cream, but I ran into my fellow divers and Josh, all out watching the sun set over Kosrae’s famous Sleeping Lady. She’s a silhouette sighted in the mountain formations. We had a good time chatting, watching the sun go down and soaking in this beautiful place.

The next day it was time to leave and I was seriously rethinking my plans. I should stay here, I thought (and I was right), but I felt compelled to leave enough time for Chuuk. What if it was just as nice (it was not) and I missed it? So, sadly, I went on to the airport where I reconnected with Pam and we talked all about our great time in Kosrae. I think we are both going back someday.

–Update: The Nautilus Resort in Kosrae is trying to update their resort with Solar Panels. They’ve asked for some crowd-funding in exchange for some deep discounts on your stay in Kosrae. If you’re going to Kosrae and plan to stay at the lovely Nautilus, think about donating.

License plate

License plate

The big church in Kosrae.

The big church in Kosrae.

View from the plane, leaving Kosrae.

View from the plane, leaving Kosrae.

Tide's out.

Tide’s out.

The Kosrae shore & Pacific Ocean

The Kosrae shore & Pacific Ocean

Coconut palms abound

Coconut palms abound

The bananas grow in a long spiral as the flower descends

The bananas grow in a long spiral as the flower descends

Inland waters of Kosrae

Inland waters of Kosrae

The kids saw me and waved

The kids saw me and waved

The sleeping lady in the mountains' profile

The sleeping lady in the mountains’ profile

"Debris" on the Kosrae beach.

“Debris” on the Kosrae beach.

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