Tuesday, April 24, 2007


Home again, home again. After 49 days of pure, indulgent vacation (some of it luxurious, some of it less so), I'm back at school. Everyone is remarking on how rested and relaxed I look, which well I should as I've just had my summer break. However, I've got first-term-of-the-year energy in a last-term-of-the-year environment. I'm surrounded by grumpy, burnt-out stress puppies, so we'll see how long the beachbum glow lasts.

The odd thing about taking a vacation in the 'wrong' term is that the university goes on without you. It's amazing what I've missed in ten short weeks. Changes in the cafeteria, the departmental paperwork, the recordkeeping procedures... "When did that happen?" has been on my lips a lot the past few days.

There has been one rather unusual, truly unexpected change. The university now has a ... (wait for it)... nail salon! Manicures, pedicures, massage and reflexology on tap, right above the cafeteria. My first response was righteous indignation: "How ridiculous and sexist! These women are supposed to be studying, not playing Barbie!" And then I thought a moment. The girls who spend their time in the library will still be there. The ones who spend their time gossiping in the cafeteria might as well do their gossiping while they're getting their nails done, and then at least something useful gets accomplished. Besides, it also means that I can get a pedicure every week without having to fight through traffic to get to a salon.

And this could be the answer to the last-term grumps. Maybe those burnt-out stress puppies I work with should go and get their feet massaged. It always works for me.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


Day 46 After six weeks and sixty two dives, I found myself getting on a plane again: not for another dive resort, but for Hong Kong. Don’t get me wrong – there’s lots more of the Philippines I want to dive, but I’ll save it for another time. Sometimes a girl just wants to shop, and I figured since it was so close (and cheap!) and I hadn’t been since HK since it went Chinese again, I might as well make a quick hop over to the New Territories.

It is so great to be in a proper city again! I can’t remember the last time I was in a truly cosmopolitan city. Dubai pretends, but it just doesn’t cut it. In Hong Kong, everyone bustles, everyone’s busy, everyone’s on the street. It has a huge, busy business district and vast shopping areas where you can find just about anything you want (not an underwater flash for a Sony T-series, but then nobody dives here). There are museums, parks, sights and a highly efficient public transportation system – Dubai, take note: Hong Kong was also run by the British at one point in time and look where it is now!

My first day was spent in Ocean Park, which is an aquarium/amusement park in the Causeway Bay area. I had intended to stay only for the morning, but was having such a good time I spent the day. Ocean Park’s “Atoll Reef” aquarium is stunning. I’ve seen many of the fish while diving, of course, but not so many all at once. I debated going to the dolphin and sea lion show as I don’t really approve of them, but went anyway. It was well-done, too. I wrapped up the day with a cable car ride to the lower section of the park and then a hot air balloon ride (OK, it was tethered, but still) to finish off. Then off to Sogo Hong Kong.

The Japanese department store chain, Sogo, has (IMHO) the best department stores on the planet, and the Hong Kong Branch did not disappoint. Who wouldn't love a department store with sixteen floors! Of course, HK Sogo is one department store among many… Dubai, which claims to be a shopping mecca, doesn’t even have a decent department store (Harvey Nichols isn't bad, but it's tiny). Hong Kong has dozens. Again, Dubai, take note! HK days two and three were spent walking the length of Nathan Road and environs and trawling the shops, "depaatos" and holes-in-the-wall, plus a couple of markets for good measure. Suffice it to say that my Christmas shopping is done and I am going to have to pay horrendous excess baggage on the airlines.

Tomorrow, it’s off to the museums and maybe a temple. And then home.

Friday, April 06, 2007


Day 42. Here are some fish. Yes, fish. None of those almond-and-triangle shaped things you drew when you were a kid. These are serious fish.

This is a frogfish. They’re angler fish and tend to stay more or less in one place, though we did see one swimming. (If this link works, then here’s a video. Otherwise, you’ll have to come by my office and I’ll bore you in person).

This fellow is a flying gunard, found in the sand in Sulawesi. They usually hide in holes in the sand, but not only did this one come out, but he very nicely displayed for me. I had to chase him a bit, so I’m lucky to have gotten this picture at all.

The lionfish is lovely, but very poisonous. Those feathery spines carry a nasty toxin which can (and does) kill. I keep well clear of them (Neil took this picture in Bunaken), along with their species-mates, the stonefish. This white one was very deep, so the color is a bit funky. Both of these are part of the scorpion fish group, and here’s a pink leaf scorpion fish found in Sulawesi, again, taken by Neil, who has more guts than I have.

On the non-poisonous front are these little fire dart gobies, and the lovely Banggai cardinalfish, which Erika fell madly in love with in Sulawesi.
They’d look great on Martini Rock back home, but I don’t think we can import live fish. Not that Bunaken would miss them – they were everywhere.

Finally on the fish front is this jawfish. I feel lucky to have spotted this one, since they usually hang out in a hole in the sand with their mouths open and they’re easy to miss. I managed to coax this one out of his hole and get him to open wide. Isn’t he lovely?

So many fish, so little time.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007


Day 33. Unlike Blanche DuBois, I have never depended upon the kindness of strangers. I like to be as independent as possible, and tend to rely on wit, research, common sense and phrase books to do most things while I’m traveling. I’m usually pretty successful, and my travels don’t generally throw me anything I can’t cope with. Even so, I am ever so grateful when the kindness of strangers shows up.

I had a day to spend in Jakarta, having arrived from Manado at ten in the morning for a one a.m. flight to Manila. Me being me and Indonesia being famous for batik, I dumped my luggage at the airport and went shopping. I’d read about a huge shopping district called Blok M in central Jakarta, so that’s where I headed. The first unexpected bit of kindness I received was from a man standing next to the airport info desk. I had stopped by to check whether I would likely find what I wanted at Blok M (research!) and approximately how long and how much it would cost me to get there so I could make sure I had enough rupiyahs (common sense). As I was asking my questions, this old guy who was just standing around told me about a bus I could take directly to the shopping district that would cost one tenth the price of a cab. Thank you very much sir, and that’s what I did.

Having duly arrived, I hit the nearest shopping mall. I worked all five floors but couldn’t find what I wanted anywhere, so I stopped in a craft shop and asked the ladies sitting there eating lunch. They spoke very little English and I didn’t have a phrase book (I hadn’t even realized that I had the day in Jakarta, and so hadn’t prepared), but we managed to communicate well enough (wit!) for them to point me in the direction of a totally different department store across the street, through the street market (where the quality was not reliable, or at least I think that’s what they meant) and over the way.

I found the place, and it had exactly what I wanted. Two floors of Indonesian arts and crafts. So, being sensible, I asked about shipping items home before I went mad and bought out the shop, and was assured there was a place in the basement that would wrap and ship my items home. So I shopped.

The shipping issue was important for two reasons: one, I’d been paying overweight baggage charges throughout SE Asia and I still had a way to go, and two, I wanted to buy a couple of awkwardly shaped and rather delicate items that would be difficult to keep safe in a bag with all my heavy-duty dive gear.

I found the shipping counter in the basement as promised, but was told it would not be open for business for another couple of weeks. So much for research. The gentleman at the not-yet-finished shipping desk did suggest the central post office, and then realized I couldn’t get there before it closed. He pointed me in the direction of the travel agent when I asked if the airport had a post office or a UPS, but she didn’t think it did. At least I think that’s what she said. I was kicking myself for not having a phrase book. So much for independence.

A young Korean man had been watching my growing distress and stepped in. He suggested DHL in central Jakarta, and asked the travel agent to call and see if they were open. As she dialed, the young man and I got to chatting, and I learned that he was in the herbal shampoo business and was currently a student in Tokyo learning Japanese to increase his market possibilities there. He had popped into Jakarta to visit his office there, and would be going back to Japan shortly. We talked about Dubai and he mentioned he was planning to go there too, whereupon I gave him my email address and told him I had no shampoo contacts, but I could certainly buy him a drink when he came to town. By this time, we had an answer – DHL was open (hurray!) and I thanked the young man, thinking I’d find a cab and go. Nonsense. He insisted on coming with me. Possibly because he wanted to see how it played out, but probably because he realized that it would be hopeless for me to try to get anything done without a word of Indonesian. I refused to put him out; he insisted. I was silently relieved.

Long story short: DHL wanted to charge me the ‘up to 25 kg’ rate to send my 5 pounds of batik and souvenirs (they charge by the box size, not weight) and that was nearly $300 US. Utterly ridiculous. He argued, he cajoled, he talked to the head office on the phone – no dice. I took my package back and he looked crestfallen that he couldn’t manage to get it shipped for me.

Well, Mr. Oh Byoung Chul, it doesn’t matter a bit. I am ever so grateful for all of your help and, as it happens, I managed to make a sturdy enough container for the delicate thing and put it in my luggage with the dive gear. It has made it to the Philippines undamaged, so with luck, it will make it home. And I will look for an email from you telling me when you’ll be in Dubai. We’ll take you to dinner, and I will look for contacts in the health and beauty field for you. I make no promises, but it’s the very least I can do to repay the kindness of a stranger.

Sunday, April 01, 2007


Day 32. Erika and I just paid $120 for a hot shower, and it was worth every nickel.

We’d just finished ten days in Bunaken and Lembeh Strait, diving the beautiful, crystal clear waters of North Sulawesi. Two Fish Divers in Bunaken was basic, but quite pleasant. The food was simple but tasty, our dive guide was excellent, the people running the resort and the other divers were interesting and genial. There was no hot water or air con, but the room was comfortable enough and it had a fan and electronic mozzie killer, and I’d recommend them to anyone wanting to dive the area. The diving is absolutely spectacular. That’s where we stayed for most of the trip, and then for the last two days we went on to the famous muck diving in Lembeh.

I thought Two Fish Bunaken was basic. Let’s just say that if I had gone to the Lembeh resort first, I would probably have stepped on a plane and gone back to Thailand. Not only was the water in the bathroom tepid, it was so rusty as to be unusable. It was so humid my mosquito coils wouldn’t burn; there were ants in my bed and dogs (with their fleas) everywhere, so I ended up covered in bites. The diving was superb, the guide very good, and Erika has a good sense of humor (thank God), but by the time we were scheduled to leave I wasn’t the least bit sorry. I will certainly go back to Lembeh, but next time I think I’ll go to the upscale resort on the other side of the strait. They looked like they had plumbing.

Because our flight to Jakarta was at six in the morning Wednesday, we went back to Manado on Tuesday afternoon and stayed the night. We were scheduled to stay in the Celebes Hotel, where we had stayed the very first night in Manado. It was your basic cheap tourist hotel, which hadn’t bothered us at all on Day 24. But after two days in Creepy Crawly Cold-water Central… I grabbed the Lembeh resort’s ancient copy of the Lonely Planet, looked at Erika and said,

“I wonder whether Manado has…”
“A five star hotel?” she finished.

According to the book, the Novotel was nearly completed (it was an old LP), and indeed we found that not onlyhad it been built, it had already changed hands and was now The Ritzy Hotel, right across from the Manado Mega Mall. We checked in, ordered extra towels, and took very long, very hot showers, reveling in the luxury that only the Ritzy Hotel could provide (at least in Manado). Then we went to the mall, bought shoes, ate pizza and had hour-long $3 pedicures. Erika got her hair cut and her toenails painted electric blue. Ah, civilization.

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