Frogwoman 101

The amazing thing about learning to dive was how scary it wasn’t. I was prepared to be freaked out when it really hit me that I was breathing underwater and that I was not going to surface anytime soon. But when I got down to the ocean floor with all the gear on, it just seemed kind of normal.

Chad and I high-fiving like the people in the dorky PADI videos. Really. We’re not actually dorks.

Even the underwater skills we had to learn – how to find your air hose if it falls out of your mouth, how to breathe using your buddy’s extra mouthpiece, etc. – were more like games than chores. I think the fact that I’ve snorkeled a fair amount helped; it’s easier if you’re already used to breathing with your face in the water and clearing water from the hose just using your breath.

Chad (lying down) demonstrates proper buoyancy control for the instructor while I (with the pink weight belt) monitor my air supply.

The truly scary part was getting out to the boat. The pier had partially collapsed (three years ago, a local guy told me) and never been repaired.

Going out and back required scrambling down one side using the gaps between boards as a ladder, walking over on three wobbly planks, and climbing up the other side. This got even trickier when the tide was up or somebody had dripped oil on the boards.

Dive instructor Sarah walks the planks.

The payoff for all that, of course, was diving. On our last day we went to a pretty cool reef off Tatawa Island, in Komodo National Park. Photos in the next post!

Oops!

We only planned to spend a night in Kuta, but fate intervened in the form of a stupid mistake. The morning of our onward flight to Labuan Bajo, we realized we’d both forgotten to replenish our supply of contact lenses. We were planning to dive and snorkel around some of the world’s most renowned coral reefs, and we would be as blind as two bats. It might be possible to get lenses on Flores, but we couldn’t count on it, and there wasn’t enough time to find out.

The airport Starbucks was playing Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now.” Seriously.

After agonizing, and checking with the airline, and agonizing some more, we decided to pay the penalty, delay the flight two days and get some lenses.

Staying in Bali wasn’t such a bad thing anyway. With the World Cup in its final stages, Kuta had a bad case of football fever.

 
I love World Cup time in Indonesia. Everyone stays up late to watch the matches in big groups, often clustered around TVs out on streetcorners. They spend the next day analyzing each team’s performance and predicting the next-round results. It’s a kind of sleepy happy madness, and it reminded me of our earliest days back in Jakarta, which feels appropriate for a farewell tour.

In another blast from the past, we brushed off our rusty surfing style with a couple of lessons. We graduated from the enormous foam boards and began to master somewhat smaller foam boards.

And finally, lenses in hand, we set out for Labuan Bajo.

Flores: Diving, dragons and digs

After Burma we enjoyed a lovely week in Jakarta, seeing friends, mailing boxes home, and untangling bureaucratic details . Or perhaps I should say bureau-cat-ic details, since many of them revolved around the absurd process of preparing to take Susu with us on the plane. Who knew that a former half-starved street kitten of unknown origins would require something as fancy (and expensive) as an exit permit?

Susu demonstrates the Flying Kitty pose, blissfully unaware that she will soon be a flying kitty herself

Anyway, after getting things more or less organized we headed out for the last phase of the Southeast Asia Tour: Flores, Indonesia.

Why Flores?

First, there’s the diving, said to be among the best in the world. Second, there are Komodo dragons. What says “vacation” more than “island of giant reptiles”? Third, there are Hobbits. Or at least bones of Hobbits. Chad has wanted to do a story about the archeological discoveries there since before we came to Indonesia, and I promptly volunteered to be the photographer because I love hanging around dig sites. 

So we set off for Flores. First stop: Bali.

Best-T Honey toothpaste: Sweet!

Here’s the answer to those artificial sweeteners that make your toothpaste taste like a chemistry experiment: toothpaste with honey! Because teeth and sugar go together like … er … because sugar is great for … hmm … well, it tastes good!

I bought Best-T in Yangon. It does, in fact, look and taste like honey, and it lists real honey (not artificial flavoring) as an ingredient. It behaved like normal toothpaste, but an hour after I used it, my teeth always felt dirty again. As far as I could tell, I might as well be brushing with a Snickers bar. So it’s back to boring old Pepsodent for now.

Smackdown: Yangon vs. Jakarta!

Out of all the sprawling Asian cities we visited on the tour, Yangon (Rangoon) reminded me the most of Jakarta. I think most of the resemblance was infrastructural, if I may coin a word: the crazy traffic, the smog, the poorly-maintained roads and the rather sad pedestrian overpasses all felt like my beloved Jakarta.

Beloved? Yes, I do love Jakarta, as much as it drives me crazy. There is a great city locked inside Jakarta’s chaos, and it would only take some good management to bring it out. It pains me a little that my adopted city so resembles the abandoned capital of a long-abused nation like Myanmar. But so be it. Without further ado, I present Smackdown 2010: Jakarta-Yangon edition!

STREET LIFE: We didn’t have enough time in Yangon to do a thorough survey of markets etc., but I’d have to give the edge to Jakarta. It’s hard to match the buzz of the Jak when it comes to people hawking, hustling or just hanging out on the street.

TAXIS: Advantage Jakarta, again. Yangon’s taxis lack shock absorbers, and for some reason most of them have lost the inner paneling on their doors, making them look sadder than even the shabbiest Kosti Jaya in Jakarta.

TRAFFIC: Both suffer from poor traffic control and an absence of mass transit, but Yangon is the winner, simply because it’s smaller and fewer people can afford cars.

Yangon traffic: not yet Jakarta, but it’s getting there

AIR QUALITY: Advantage Yangon (see Traffic).

ROADS: Jakarta by a nose. Lots of potholes in both cities.

MONUMENTS: Sorry, Jakarta, but any city would be hard pressed to top the magnificence of Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda.

The final tally? A 3-3 tie! That’s pretty much how the experts have called it as well; the two cities have vied neck and neck in the lower tier of contestants on the annual Expat Quality of Life report.

Stupas in the sun

Bagan is Burma’s answer to Angkor: some 40 square kilometers packed with more than 2,000 temples.

As you might imagine, it’s a bit overwhelming. There are huge old impressive stupas like this one …

But it was the small things that stayed with me, like a little teak statue

and a (thankfully unrestored) faded painting of a woman with an umbrella.

This being Myanmar, there is a sad side to the story: the junta has been criticized for forcibly relocating people from the area in 1990, and has been accused of degrading the structures’ historical value by renovating them inappropriately.

Hawkers and would-be guides at the more famous temples can drive you crazy, but the town itself, Nyaung U, was pleasantly laid-back. Lots of restaurants sold the local yogurt, which was tart, rich, slightly lumpy, and exceptionally delicious. Apparently Leonardo DiCaprio has a fancy frozen yogurt machine in his office, but if I were a Hollywood star, I’d hire someone from Bagan to hang around making the fresh stuff for me.

How to stuff a Jeep

We spent the third night of the hike in Namhsan, a cute and chilly little mountain town.

The guide booked us seats on a Jeep headed down the mountain to Hsipaw the next day. Chad and I were surprised when the little vehicle pulled up in front of our guesthouse.  It clearly had space for only five passengers – one on the bucket seat up front and four on the benches that faced each other in the back. There were already four people aboard, so where were we supposed to sit?

It all became clear after the driver lashed our bags to the roof and gestured for us to get in. I got the remaining bench seat, with Chad on the floor at my feet and our tour guide on the tailgate. And that’s how it remained … until we stopped to take on more people. And more. And more.

In all, we crammed fourteen passengers and a driver into the tiny vehicle: four on the benches, three on the floor, four sitting or standing on the tailgate, two in the bucket seat and one lucky dude sitting sidesaddle on the hood – I kid you not – while clinging to the side-view mirror.

The dirt road down the mountain was swimming in mud. Work crews with hoes and shovels didn’t seem to be making a dent in the mess. The driver did a heroic job getting us to town without getting stuck, or, worse, sliding off the road.

It was a very long five-hour ride: Chad’s feet went numb and I felt like I’d been spanked with a two-by-four. But our one-time bad experience is a routine occurrence in Myanmar, where public buses and vans are almost always overflowing with people.

 
As we stretched our legs at a rest stop halfway down the mountain, I wondered how many of our fellow travelers made this trip monthly or even weekly. Did they dread being crammed willy-nilly into the vehicle, or do you get used to it after the100th time?