Archive for April, 2009

Cash Rules Everything Around Me…Ching!

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7yfISlGLNU

I’m still in Bangkok but I’m leaving soon. I haven’t found my backpacker footing just yet since I’ve been staying with my buddy Ryan. This means that I haven’t met an exorbitant amount of fellow backpackers who have the 411 on how and where to go in Thailand. Luckily I’ve been tapping into my new and extensive network of friends that I have met in previous travels. People who have been to Thailand already (the backpacker route) are sharing all sorts of helpful tips.

One very important errand that I had to get done while in Thailand was acquiring a visa for China (to be visited in a few months). Here’s where the title of this post comes from. I could purchase a visa that would take a week to be ready, or for an extra fee of $40 I can have it in 4 hours. I thought that in that amount of time, they wouldn’t even have time to read my application, let alone check any of my sources. In that amount of time they barely can peel the sticker. So I did it; what the hell. The last thing I wanted to do was to wonder who was holding my passport for the next week.

The Chinese embassy was very close to my friend’s flat. In fact, it was 3 blocks away. Believe me when I say that I have no sense of direction, and Bangkok is full of corners and alleys that look exactly the same. Luckily there was a ominous landmark that absolutely no one could miss. It is the “True Tower”, an 80 some odd story tower that has been converted to a giant billboard for the cell phone company “True”. True has an increadible deal for people living in major cities. Roughly 3 cents a minute to call anyone (land line or cell) in America, Thailand, UK, and pretty much anywhere else in the developed world. The secret is that they hook your phone up to a data network so it works like Skype. At this price, I don’t know how they can afford to pay their employees who help you set up your SIM card. My helper left the language setting in Thai which is lovely.

Paying real money for something ($100) really gets you to the front of the line though. It gets you a pass into a communist nation that has relatively high security in a few hours. I was afraid that the people in the Chinese embassy were going to be strict, but all of them appeared to have adopted the Thai culture very well.

Speaking of the Thai culture, I owe you a dichotomy from a few days ago. He it is: the country seems to be completely tolerant and ok with prostitution, sex shows (ping pong show ((use your imagination)) and transvestites (lady boys), but is completely against vulgar language. For instance, when on the internet in Thailand (which stands for Free land by the way), you can not download this video:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R7yfISlGLNU

Or others like it. Our culture is completely different of course, where this clip (a censored version) aired on the ever popular Saturday Night Live. Our culture loves it but is appalled about two people of the same sex trying to have their love recognized in the culturally significant standard of marriage. Oops, I just got political :)

Well America would barf in its own mouth if they had as many transvestites as active members of the community. But hey, that’s why this place is great, it’s different. Some of the differences seem silly, but that’s just a sign that I don’t really get it just yet.

I can say that when walking in the streets, the cars and the people have to share the roads and they do it very well. With great patience, no one honks their horn; no one gets hit by cars; and everyone gets where they need to go quickly. And believe me it is crowded. They just don’t see a reason to honk. It’s understood; it’s not your road or mine, it’s everyone’s road. Imagine that.

I’ve almost got my plan of attack now for where I’m going to go, so the posts will be less frequent since I’ll be on the road a lot more. I’m heading south to the beautiful tropical islands to see some beaches, do some diving, and make my way to Malaysia and Singapore.

I’ve also been working out some technical problems as of recent. I purchased a new camera that records 720p HD Video as well. The problem is that my Net book is underpowered and doesn’t have a disk drive for the software driver needed to dumb down the data and process it. Did anyone just follow that? I wish I had an external disk drive right about now but I am trying some creative avenues to get around it. So maybe no video for a while.

But Here is a 711 in Bangkok

“The Club”  Bangkok

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Second Try (Chatuchak Market)

Sunday, April 26th, 2009

Well I can easily say that my previous title was premature. I don’t think it’s fair to mention the word slumdog in the same sentence as Thailand. I just spent the entire day at the largest indoor and outdoor market that I’ve ever seen (and I’ve been to 21 countries in my life time). In this market were 99% locals and these locals were by no means ultra poor. Thailand is a nation that has a large size middle class (in relative third world nation status). What I’m trying to say is that the vast majority of the country enjoys a roof over their head, plenty of food, and even enough money to purchase a little of just about anything you can think of. By no means are they middle class by US standards, but relative to the rest of the world, they have a pretty sweet life.

I can honestly say that I almost passed out from a sugar rush and overload during my street food binge. I had a coconut water immediately followed by a sugar cane drink and then topped it off with a Thai Orange Juice. Very sweet to the point where I felt like I would either fly in the next few minutes or tumble to my sugar induced death. I now have diabetes by the way.

I had barbecued octopus on a stick for 30 cents, chicken skewers for another 30 cents, and crab Rangoon for another 30 cents. It was a veritable orgy of flavors and exotics in and around my mouth. A crab Rangoon is a deep fried dumpling with sweet cream cheese and a hard boiled quail egg topped with sweet chili sauce. This shit is real. I can’t stress this enough, “If you go to Thailand, get as far away from the tourist traps and sit down restaurants as you can. The real food is the food of the people. Go to their market and eat in their streets and you will have your best meals; all for embarrassingly low prices. Prices so low, you wouldn’t dare try and barter with them.

Come to think of it, there isn’t too much bartering culture in the local areas. It is more of something to do in the tourist traps. When something is asking for 30 cents for something that would cost 6 dollars at home (in a Japanese restaurant), you just smile and take it. If they would have asked for 60 cents would you have ever noticed the difference? But seriously, it’s not like Mexico where any hesitation will lead to the solicitor to offer a different price. You have to work on them for 5 agonizing minutes to save an extra 50 cents on your $2 t-shirt and at that point, is it even worth it?

But let’s get to this market and its size and splendor. We got out of a cab and entered the market. We walked for 20 minutes in a straight line through all sorts of stands to learn that we had only passed through an outskirt market that is sort of a warm up for the main market. Inside of the market we didn’t even dare to turn and spread down any of the isles. We just went in a straight line and ended up taking over 2 hours to reach the other side.

During that straight line we saw all sorts of things but the live animals for sale were probably the most mind blowing. It started slow with pure breed puppies. I stared at a bull dog puppy waddling around like a duck for 10 minutes before I asked the man how much. He looked at me and, with an abnormally long delay, gave me a price. He was sizing me up and figuring out how many multiples he could get away with. Correction with the bargaining proclamation, you can bargain, when it is a big ticket item, and the guy hesitates for a while before he gives you a price. This is where you can probably get a 30-50% discount.

Onto the more exotic animals for sale: how about a peacock? Or a hedge hog? Maybe a squirrel? Or a Salt Water Crocodile? Naaa that’s not rare enough; an albino snapping turtle? Oh and you can buy bags of live plankton for your whale too. I’m not kidding, this place is insane. Of course there are the $5 coy fish for sale (hundreds in the states). I’m trying to think back to the day to remember the other exotic animals, but I’m at a loss at the moment.

The most expensive thing I found today was a $9K statue of an alien from the movie “Aliens” that was welded together entirely from spare parts. This price of course included the shipping costs back to your home or dungeon.

The people here are helpful and kind. They are absolutely thrilled when you request them to teach you some of the language too.

The dichotomy that does exist is the one between sexuality and language. The Thai government does a great job censoring the internet in content that uses swear words, but there are prominent sex shows and prostitution.

I’ll talk more about that next time.

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Slumdog Opulence

Saturday, April 25th, 2009

Yesterday’s expenses:

Flat in Bangkok Free

Breakfast Noodles $1

Watermelon snack $0.20

1 hour Thai Massage $6

Cab ride $1.5

Second 1 hour massage $6

Dinner $3

4 drinks in the night                    $4

Midnight Chicken shish cabob $0.3

Cab Home $1.5

Total $23.5

This is Thailand

Thailand has several weapons grade dichotomies. The first is how rich of a life style their visitors can live whilst they live such poverty. Well, not completely. Poverty of happiness can be experienced by the multi millionaire. In this respect, Thai people are thick as thieves.

I’m a little overwhelmed with how cool this place is, so it’s a challenge to stay on any one topic. I drank a can of chrysanthemum juice from a Seven Eleven and it was like drinking a flower. That old Thai lady giving me the massage had the strongest hands I had ever seen! I don’t feel like I am sweating, but I have wet spots all over. That kid just beat a grown man in a thumb war for a bet of $3. Is that cell phone plan really 1 bhat a minute (35 bhat in a dollar)? “Dude, you just bit a piece of fat.” “I know and it tasted great.” Wait you mean that we can get fake IDs that make us young again?

Ummm, I need to do a little sorting out. I promise the next post will be about slumdog opulence.

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Getting to Thailand

Friday, April 24th, 2009

I just wanted to tip my hat to Qantas and the Thai Customs Officials.  Firstly, Qantas on their new Airbus Plane.  The biggest bird out there, I can finally say that they have solved the age old question of “how in the world are we going to entertain/keep these people happy for 9+ hours?”

Simply put, technology is just now becoming practical.  In this I mean that people are beginning to not have to strain to take advantage of the technology of today.  It should be convenient and effortless and it finally is.  we have had movies on-board the plane now for ages, but for my whole life there has been an issue of control and variety.

Sydney to Bangkok was the first flight I’ve ever been on when the entertainment system excels in breadth and depth.  Simply put, choose from 50 current movies (3 of them 2008 Oscar winners), 80 tv shows, games, and even a huge CD collection (not the typical 8 radio stations), all of which play when you want and how you want.

I chose movies that happened to have some nude scenes in them and just as I was going to tear the screen out of the seat back because I noticed a 7 year little old girl sitting across the isle, I saw that the screens were polarized (much like that of an ATM) so that essentially no one else could see what I was watching unless they were on my lap.

The next novel idea was a flight program.  It was a timeline of the services that you would receive during the course of the flight.  First hour, meal. Second hour, hot chocolate or Mint spiced tea.  Third hour, fresh fruit.  It was simply amazing.  It got rid of the uncertainty of what’s next.  As long as you prepare some one and keep them out of the dark, they intern know how to pace themselves.

I must have watched 4 movies in a row during the flight.  The toilet signs would illuminate as occupied in the isle so that people wouldn’t waste their time walking all the way down if they wanted to get to business without standing in the isle.  Its like the airline companies finally started reading the comment cards that they have been compiling for the last 50 years.

This airbus had a substantially long take off and landing as well as a very shallow approach and take off.  it felt like you were trying to fly away with a city.  If this is the future of air travel, then bravo.

The Thai customs officials let me through without a fuss, that’s all I ever wanted :)

I took a cab straight away to my friend and ex room mate in college’s flat in Bangkok.  The cabdriver smiled and placed a thoughtful hand on my shoulder and said “where to?”  in true Thai fashion.  The 40 minute cab ride was $12 US.

It was great to see my friend who had been getting his MBA in London for over the past year.  We went out for street food at 2 AM and called it a night.

I’m safe now.  And I’ll have much more substantial things to write about when I go out and explore the city today.

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An Unexpected Feeling

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2009

I’m back in Sydney once again for a few last days. What was an insurmountable task of finding my way to my hostel from the airport via sub way has now become something of second nature. I feel oddly bold about making my way around the city. It isn’t completely new. But is there more to this feeling? There seems to be a hint of “I’m going to miss this country” in my brain at the moment. How could this be? How could I go through a country for 2 months (many times enduring the same arrogance that the locals claimed that my people embodied) in a country that was not what I had hoped it would be and get a feeling that I was going to miss the place? Maybe it was fact that I had never been anywhere abroad for this long. Maybe it was the fact that this was the last primarily English speaking country that I was going to be in for the next 4 months. Maybe it was just my brain being excited for circling back for once in the last 3 months.

Maybe it was my brain screaming in delight for some sort of familiarity just as it screams this way when I come upon variety at home. Maybe this was my brain craving something a little more middle path than I have been traveling for the past 3 months. I am by no means home sick though. I’d like to do this at the end of every country, but when the speed of countries visited increases I won’t have time for:

Australia is; New Zealand Was

There is nothing more fun than being able to look at old experiences again based on the new experiences you’ve had. It’s the “man if I had this brain/confidence/body/self esteem in high school” scenario, only with traveling.

Come to think of it, maybe the title should be “Australia was; New Zealand Is” because I have greater insight on New Zealand now that I have seen it’s beautiful big sister. And yes, I do promise there will be an “I was; I am” and the end of this great journey.

Onto the good stuff: Australia is a great way to appreciate New Zealand more. Boom.

I’ll open with a story about me going to the Airport in Cairns. I jumped into a shuttle van that an old tanned man was driving. I was the only passenger that he had that day so he began to talk to me about who I was and where I was from. I was a little surprised in the sincerity in his voice. He had the standard accent, but when the poignant question of where are you from came to the table, there was no arrogant twang under his breath. I told him and his response didn’t feel loaded either. I felt like maybe I had been dealt a bunch of jokers in a row (in my two months of Australia) and maybe there was a need for a re-evaluation. I said to him “Have you always lived in Cairns” and he put his foot on the break at the red light, swung back to stare me in the eye for the first time (not via the rear view mirror) and said “ Naw, Mate; I’m a Kiwi!”

A hah! I knew there was something off. We spent the rest of the ride talking about the sincerity of people in New Zealand (Kiwis) Vs the People in Australia.

I didn’t realize how wonderful New Zealand was until I had Australia to set as a back drop. I didn’t quite appreciate the people’s genuine nature until I encountered Australia’s people. I didn’t appreciate the long lasting connections that I made in New Zealand until I encountered the Backpackers Dilemma in Australia.

Australia was a series of beaches (many of them with much cleaner and purer sands and water than anything you can find in California, but none the less, for the most part, and just a string of beaches.) It’s fair to say that I didn’t see all of Australia, so It’s not fair to rate it as so one dimensional, but to be fair, a country shouldn’t be a riddle. Its strengths and bravado should slap you in the face upon walking off of the plane. You should be struck with a blow to your soul that makes you sit and wonder how you ever went this long without visiting.

I loved the Great Barrier Reef so much that it completely saved my endorsement of Australia. I would say that everyone needs to go to Australia in their life time, but you don’t need to go for two or even one month here. Just go to the reef, get under the water and see something so marvelous that it made can make an atheist wonder.

Go to New Zealand. Walk on a Glacier one day, a rain forest the next, and a volcano the following. Enjoy a country who doesn’t know how beautiful it is yet. Enjoy a people who are as sincere as they are happy to see you. Bring your coat and your rain coat J

Australia was a snobby gal while New Zealand is that intern who you hired on a whim and ended up being your successor in the company. But New Zealand won’t be like this forever. Eventually it will gain more lime light than its overgrown sister and more people will flood into its lands than she can handle and she will get the same attitude as Hawaii (“please just give me a break from all these tourists that continuously crawl through my skin”).

So if you like natural wonders, breathtaking views and events, an easy travel path, and a genuine people: go now, to New Zealand.

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I’ve Got to Get the Hell out of Cairns

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

I have now been in this city for nearly a month. Given there are plenty of things to do here like enjoy a good meal for a cheap price, dance on a table, catch king salmon in the estuary next to the crocks, and of course scuba dive some of the more breath taking reefs that this world has to offer. I can still say that I’ve been here for an absurd amount of time.

To think that I have been here for nearly a month, when I am taking 13 months to see an approximate 40 countries is insane. To think that one town, not even country, is claiming so large a portion of my time is obtroquious (look it up) ((it doesn’t exist)) (((I think I love it)))

Just as I’ve been whittled down to a sorry nub, I get a new roommate in my hostel. Just as I am convinced that Australia is nothing more than a strip of spring breakers stretching the length of the eastern sea board, I meet someone drastically different.

Ok, if you don’t believe that I’ve been here too long, please consider this one crucial piece of information: I actually know where I am going in Cairns. That’s right; I don’t get lost when walking the streets here. Anyone who knows my sense of direction, knows that that is simply frightening.

But first I think this is as good a time as ever to coin a new type of backpacker. I would like to announce to the world (my 15 daily readers) The Beer Packer. These are individuals who are better off at home drinking themselves into a daze at their local bars. Don’t get me wrong, drinking is an important social lubricant and has its place in EVERY country, but when this is all you know how to (and have ambition to) do, it becomes a laughable stereotype to place people into.

Here is the definition of a beer packer: when someone asks you how a certain country was, you refer to the price of a beer (or other alcoholic beverage) being directly tied to how good or bad, interesting or fun the country was.

For instance:

“Hey Tom, I heard you just came from India, How was it?”

“Awwww it was great, absolutely amazing! The beers there were less than a dollar each”

Also for consideration:

“Hey Tom, how was Singapore? I’m thinking of going there”

“Oh I’d skip it if I were you. The beers there were like over 12 bucks a piece.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard great and interesting people still use this to gage a country (they drink too), but I am going to refer to the folks to paid $3,000 to fly across the world for a cheap beer, beer packers from now on and it doesn’t have a positive connotation.

Is that all you know how to do? Is that seriously the reason you go traveling? Is it any better that a large part of why I travel is to eat the local food? I would argue yes. Because I can discriminate between a good plate of food and a bad one; my goal isn’t to just get as full as I can so that I have enough confidence to walk across the room and exchange fluids with some other bloated coed who will claim she doesn’t remember anything after that last round of spring rolls that night.

I never hear a beer packer even comment about the quality or taste of the beer in the country, just the price and the availability of it. And believe me I even do some poking and prodding to see if they have experienced anything culturally significant in the country in question.

How old am I anyways? I’m acting like some wicked old haggard hag who is simply judging the world because she has nothing better to do.

BING BING BING !!!

That brings me to my next subject, My 25th birthday a few days ago!!

This one was a real doozy. In true spring break fashion, with the clock stroke of midnight a wet t-shirt contest commenced. Happy Birthday ME J unfortunately though, I was the only one sober enough in the room to get the dead feeling in the pit of my stomach from the grotesque display of self degradation. But I’ve got a sick enough sense of humor, run with it J

While half the other 25 year olds were worrying about being half way to not being able to use “Hey, I’m in my 20s” as an excuse for just about anything and the other half of them were worrying about what they have done with their lives as of yet, I was cheering for girl number two from Canada to win the $50 bar tab prize package (that believe me, she did not need at the moment). What a surreal feeling, so far away from home and in the middle of an event that would certainly make me depressed had it been at home, but warmed by the fact that I was merely in a moment of something much more big and deliberate. I had 38 more countries to see. I wasn’t just going back home when I ran out of drinking funds.

To make it even better, I was with a good friend from home; my favorite roommate in college. My friend and roommate in San Diego, Pat, had made his way up to Cairns for his “spring break” while studying in Sydney for a semester as part of a bigger Masters in Business Administration at San Diego State. The Backpacker’s dilemma had been put on hold for my birthday. I was dancing up a storm with some familiar and much appreciated faces. This marked the official end to the 15 some odd year line of cursed birthdays.

I could use inside jokes and local references that I haven’t really been able to tap into since I had been in Sydney (with Pat). In addition to this, he had a friend from his home town visiting as well. This made a group of three people who completely understood each other’s humor and cultural references. There were also a number of others from Pat’s group of Sydney friends.

Earlier that day we went fishing in the estuary (the place where the salt water meets the fresh water for everyone who doesn’t remember 4th grade science class). We paid $85 Aussie to fish for 4 hours with a funny middle aged man. I used to go deep sea fishing with my mom and sometimes Aunt Pezzz (favorite Aunt because she reads my blog EVERY DAY!!) about a million years ago. It only took a few seconds for the fish to start biting our prawns that we used as bait. In fact, we caught so many “Jew Fish” (I know, Dan Redman, I’m just as appalled in the name as you) that I thought the name of the sport was “feeding”.

Dave (Pat’s good friend from home who had come out to visit) had a propensity to ignore his reel. He would get a bite and the fish was gone long before he had put down his beer to set the hook into the fish’s mouth. It was very funny to see how little involvement he committed to the sport (much like watching me play a game of flag football). And of course, in true fishing fashion, fate would have it that Dave caught a 3.5 foot king salmon. As Dave was holding the fish up to the camera for pictures, the fish would kick him in the face repeatedly (as he held it horizontally). This provided a mini laugh compared to the one I got when Dave had to walk through the streets of Cairns with a large tail hanging out of a plastic bag. People looked at us like we were criminals. They scorned and scowled and sent laser beams our way was we walked down the street with probably the first fish anyone had ever seen in a long time in Cairns (besides the ones off of the reef). Maybe that was the problem; maybe they though we illegally poached this fish off of the protected reefs. People were pulling their cars to the side of the road and practically honking to make sure we saw their look of utter disgust and disapproval.

We somehow managed to make it back to the hostel with the fish packed in ice. I volunteered to filet the fish and Pat jokingly (but probably also seriously) poked fun at the chances that I would actually know what I was doing. More than Fair enough, I am after all, not the type of guy who knows how to put things together, take them apart, or god forbid make anything. One of my most famous lines as a child is, “These hands don’t do or make.”

But somehow, in a character breaking gesture, I managed to get all the meat off that fucking fish in close to record civilian precision. It was a fun birthday indeed. One day later, in true backpacker fashion, my friends from home were gone and I was faced with the question of what to do for the next few days till I would fly to Sydney and then shortly after to Thailand.

I walked into my 4 man dorm room that had been reborn; a common occurrence. Often the people in your room are completely different if you stay there for more than just a day or two. But this time it was different, it wasn’t full of 18 year old beer packers, it had a 36 year old man named Juan from Colombia.

Meet Juan

Just as I thought my cultural interaction had hit an all time low, Juan pops up. To sum it up in a statement: We were equally as intrigued and eager to learn about each other’s culture and see each other’s countries. Colombia was my wild card; my ace in the pocket. It was the place in my travels that has the biggest misconceptions about it. It is a more misunderstood and misrepresented than any of the others on my list. I was elated to get to speak with someone from this place and he felt the same to speak to someone from the country that all of his favorite movies are from.

Juan is traveling for the first time outside of South America in his life at the age of 36. The reason is simply because of how hard it is to save up enough money in his country. He has worked for American companies in the past including Hilton and Coke and came out to Western Australia to learn English at university. When I told him that Colombia is my most anticipated country to visit in my travels, his eyes lit up. This was a supreme compliment to hear. It was like finding out that superman wears Alex pajamas when he goes to sleep (think about it).

And so the cultural exchange began. We sat in our hostel room for 4 hours just chatting away about the different things in our countries and how we have been adjusting to Australia. We both agreed that the work ethic was severely lacking in Australia. He was so excited to hear about my travel plans around the world and said that that is his dream as well. He made sure and listed all of the places to visit and things to do in Colombia and of course, in true Latin fashion, offered to show me around when I arrived in Bogotá (in 9 months).

Fun fact; did you know that Juan has Colombian car insurance that includes a policy where a representative from the insurance company will drive him home if he has had too much to drink? What a novel approach to keeping costs down? And a handy little byproduct is less drunk drivers on the road and less deaths. I wonder if it could work in America. Maybe if you were insuring a car that was worth over $30K. Or what if the life insurance companies got involved in the matter? What if they decided that paying out $250K + term life insurance warrants such preventative measures?

“In Colombia, people actually follow designated driving suggestions from the government” Juan said. Well whole flip shit fuck, imagine that, a world with safe roads. Is it possible in a place that is as big as America? Maybe in small towns as a start.

The beauty in a Latino who barely knows English is their fearless use of words like “Beautiful” and phrases like “This is my dream”. I don’t quite know whether it is a function of shallow vocabulary or deep ambition. This blotch of ambiguity is what makes multicultural interaction so damned rich.

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Taka Day 5

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

After feeling somewhat sea sick for the better part of five days, I am glad to come home. Wait? Home? I mean “home” as in land. I’m all dived out; 14 dives in 4 days. I’ve got 5 scratches from the reef (pushing it to the limit!) and a few very personal rashes from all the underwater movement. Let’s just say I won’t be impregnating any women for the next few days. [Can he say that?]

Yes

My blog :)

We did two dives today and saw about 4 seat turtles collectively. Mr. Burns is actually kind of growing on me as a dive buddy. He’s dependable and always is about 1-2 meters above me (I swim about 4 inches away from the coral at all times which is why I have cuts).

Last night we went on the second night dive of the trip and saw a lot less than the first one. The notable moment was when I saw a cuddle fish near the surface. A cuddle fish may as well be a freaking alien for how out of this world it looks underwater. It looks a lot like a squid only it can change its skin color instantaneously to anything from the color of the water to a blinding light display that will sent most anything in the water into a trance.

On the dive before that I was staring at the bottom as Mr. Burns taps me on the shoulder and I look up to see a 100 meter golden belt of fish. It was like a river of gold in the middle of the sea. To this day, even more impressive than the shark feed, are schools of fish. Just like nature intended it, they absolutely overload your senses.

I decided not to buy the DVD because it was $100 US and I appeared in it for a collective 4 seconds. Sure the video was crisp and clear, but it was just full of people I don’t want to ever see again and fish. I warned the videographer that I would buy it if I was in it, but I will absolutely throw up if I have to see 18 people put their gear on in a row (the type of personalization that this videographer chose to use.) I don’t want a 60 minute DVD of EVERYTHING. I want a 3 minute DVD of ME. And I would have spent twice as much if he could do that.

I’m in Cairns for the next week or so and then off to Sydney for a few days. After that, Thailand!!! And Yes I’ve heard the news in Thailand. I’ll be Careful J

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Taka Day 3&4

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

Before I talk about osprey reef, I’d like to address the boat ride last night to get to osprey. The open ocean had about 6 to 8 foot seas and I had taken my motion sickness pill with dinner. No problem. It makes you drowsy and a sleeping person can’t get motion sickness. Well at 3 am the pill wore off and I woke up to some serious movement. These pills are preventative so if you feel sick, it’s too late. So the plan was to stay horizontal in my bed while finding my pill and swallowing it with my spit. Next I would listen to music and close my eyes (two tricks to lessen the effects of motion sickness) for 30 minutes till the pill takes hold.

I managed to take the pill and get my I-pod started but I felt like the pill may be sitting at the beginning of my throat instead of in my stomach (since it was only a little spit and not a proper gulp of water). The way my bead was facing made my head (and body) go up and down instead of side to side. This meant that during the movement it became hard to breathe when the boat was making its way back up the swell. I improvised a special breathing technique that consisted of breathing in when I felt weightless and out when the felt the double enforcement of gravity by the swell. It was similar to breathing out when you get kicked in the stomach in karate. Somehow it worked and the next time I woke up was 6 am. Now, onto the reef.

Osprey reef is the big show for this 5 day trip. It’s why people pay too much to go on this trip. The site is a big freaking reef in the middle of the ocean and 1000 meter depth all around for hundreds to thousands of miles. The result is a water clarity that is unmatched. There are simply no particles in the water to be stirred up for a very long way. The clarity is its own novelty. When I first got into the water I saw straight to the bottom of 70 meters. The color contrast was the most incredible blue I’ve ever seen. I wish Crayola or BMW would take a trip out here and dedicate one of their colors Osprey Blue. I’d like to see this tone a lot more if at all possible.

The next thing I noticed were the trillions of pearl like bubbles slowly making their way to the surface. It was overwhelming if not blinding. There were about 4 or 5 sharks swimming casually along the perimeter as we went exploring. The trip director convinced me to become deep water certified (30 meters instead of 18 meters) when he said “trust me, at osprey 18 meters feels like a safety stop”. A safety stop is 5 meters deep to make sure you don’t have too much nitrogen in your blood when exiting a deeper depth. The director was right, even 30 meters felt like nothing. He also said “shoot for 25 meters because it’s so clear down there that if you shoot for 30 you’ll hit 40 (the danger zone)” This coupled with being close to a 1000 meter drop off really makes you want to be mindful of your depth like never before.

The reason you have to get certified to go down to 30 meters is because when some people start to experience “nitrogen narcosis” which is a condition where the nitrogen build up affects your brain. You start to act loopy and do stupid things like chase fish and try to feed them your air.

Osprey is the edge of oblivion. It’s the end of the game. Our trip director would be the one conducting the shark feed. He was the person who conducted the cod feed as well. Trent (the director) had a bubbly sense of humor and a posture that suggested military or professional athlete. I got the sense that he was the most experienced diver on the boat as well as the most motivated. With a butt load of confidence and an ultra well spoken vocabulary, this guy was a perfect fit for the job.

The way Trent had described the shark feed made me feel like the sharks would be about 40 to 50 feet away. There would be a pinnacle stage point and we would all be circled around a natural coral amphitheater. He gave us warnings about the big silver tip reef sharks that might make their way between the pinnacle and the amphitheater to take a look into what’s going on with all the humans sitting on their wall. He also exclaimed that the sharks who were participating in the feed would be about as interested in us as we would be interested in dog food.

I had mistakenly kicked the reef the day before and had some open wounds that might make me a bit more appealing than the average diver. Trent ensured me that my blood was more like dog food gravy since it smelt completely different than the tuna fish heads that he was using for the feed. Trent also warned us that the sharks know that the second dive of the day is the feed so you will see quite a few more getting in the water than the first dive. He also warned us that there was a possibility of a shark wall. This is when the trash can full of food enters the water, the 30 some odd sharks waiting in oblivion will all approach at once creating a shark wall. This sometimes freaks people out so before he flips the hatch open for feeding, he makes one final check, staring into each one of our eyes and making sure that we are not in a state of panic.

Before I forget, my dive buddy looks like Mr. Burns (from the Simpsons) when under water with a bent over posture and both arms cocked at 90 degrees and pointing forward. It’s hilarious; he looks so damned uncomfortable underwater.

Taking my position on the reef, I realized that the pinnacle was a lot closer than I thought it would be. It was literally about 15 feet away. This shark-gy (shark orgy) was going to be up close and personal. There were three types of sharks that would be present during the feed. The White Tip Reef Shark is about 3-4 feet long at the most. It is the house cat of the scene. In comparison to the others, it looks like a pink foe. The Grey Reef Shark looked like the pit bull of the matter with a much more muscular physique and a girthy 5-5.5 feet in length. Then there is the Silver Tip Reef Shark. “You’ll know it when you see it”. They don’t actually participate in the feed, they just lurk out at the edge of oblivion and occasionally strut their way between the pinnacle stage and the amphitheatre. These guys can do some real damage. They can grow to about 8 feet long and are in no way afraid of divers like the previous two species.

Trent stands on the stage and opens the trashcan. A buoy sails up about 10 feet and 5 tuna heads are strung along like beads on a bracelet. The sharks all swarm in, violently gripping and shaking away bits of the heads. The grey reef sharks begin to break free the heads and swallow them whole. There is simply too much going on to concentrate on. There is a ball of 30 undulating sharks. It began to look like a ball of worms. And before you know it, all the tuna heads are gone. The feed is over in less than a minute and we are now left to swim around the site with 25 hungry and frustrated sharks.

Oddly enough, most of the sharks disappeared back into the oblivion. Most of the sharks lost interest in the funny looking creatures blowing bubbles. I must admit that most of the divers (myself included) stayed very close together for the duration of the dive and we stayed stuck onto the reef so that one side of us were not vulnerable.

As time went on, the groups began to loosen and a silver tip reef shark (the bad kind) made its way between me and the reef, circling tightly. I didn’t take my eyes off of it. I prepared to punch it in the nose and gouge its shark eyes out. This fucker was about to get some karate. What was I thinking? That shark would have murdered me. I didn’t have anything to hit it with let alone gloves on to prevent my firsts from being shredded its armor skin.

Luckily, the big boy only made one loop and lost interest, casually cruising back into oblivion. There were a bunch of remoras that were looking for a host at this dive site. Remoras are a species of fish that live attached to the shark. They clean the sharks skin and in return get to detach themselves to grab any bits and pieces that a shark might leave when feeding. I tried really hard to get a remora to attach to me (even though Trent said it might be a bit “prickly”) but I couldn’t do it.

When getting back on the boat, the people took as long as possible as usual. There was a huge line to get onto the dive deck but this time the sharks were making their way to the surface for a look. “Of all the times to not act like the fat whale you are, this is it!” I uselessly yelled underwater. The best part was that these lards were completely oblivious to it. They didn’t even have the common sense to look down while at the surface (completely vulnerable) after a SHARK FEED.

The next bunch of dive sites was full of underwater caverns and passages. I swam into one that was too small to get out of and too small to turn around in. Luckily, Mr. Burns instinctively knew what had happened and pulled me out by my fin.

I switched up dive buddies for the next dive and got the New Yorker who swims like a freaking motor boat. We were chasing down a blue spotted sting ray (with a tan base color) for the better part of 10 minutes. It was great fun. We also saw a stone fish (you step, you die) that was the size of a basket ball. Stone fish are among the most poisonous creatures in the world. They look like a rock and move like a rock. If you were to step on one, you would be dead before you could make it to the surface to scream “I’m a fucking idiot!”

At dinner I witnessed two different Americans talking to two Aussies and realized why the Aussies hate us so much. Americans abroad (the type that vacation for a week or so) have absolutely no experience in talking to people from other nations. They may have a few friends here or there, but they lack the basic etiquette to know when they might be offensive. Mr. Burns was American and said to the two Aussies at the table “Oh Australian food sucks. It’s not like French food or Thai Food. It doesn’t have an original theme.” I coughed in my seat and said to the Aussie Couple “I’m sorry for that and now I understand why you hate us so much.” They chuckled at me with a nod of approval, forgivingly separating me from my country of origin. They said “What? Telling someone that their food sucks and then trying to tell them how to do something their way as if it’s the only way?” And there it was, the truth. Most Americans who come abroad don’t understand that there is more than one way to skin a cat. This was the very reason I travel, because I find the other ways fascinating. I blame it on our isolation. We don’t have 30 other countries that we can mingle with within a few hours.

Another Aussie described it as arrogance. He said “You see, Aussies are good, but we don’t go around bragging about it. But Americans are also very good and they go around bragging about it to everyone.” (Correction, we aren’t good, we’re the best. It’s called a super power for a reason and if you’d like to take the title, you’re going to have to start working harder than checking your facebook at work while of making me wait at the damned front desk you lazy sack of shit! ) This really pisses off an Aussie because they are so competitive. And by the way, the Aussie who claimed that they don’t brag, happened to start about 7/10 of his sentences with “I’m Aussie” then explaining how he can’t get sun burnt, or bit by mosquitoes”. He was extra prideful.

The next time you go abroad follow these 3 simple rules of etiquette:

1. Don’t take anything personally.

2. Take interest in someone’s culture (not just their personal lives)

3. If someone seems like a jerk because they are quiet, they are probably just shy (which is true at home). Refer to rules one and two and you’ll have a friend before you know it.

Those are the rules. Follow them, and you will be ready for international life.

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Taka Day 1&2

Tuesday, April 14th, 2009

The Taka was my splurge for all of Australia, in fact, it was my biggest splurge on the trip so far. How much did it cost exactly? Well, I’ll tell you that I was the only backpacker on the boat. In fact, there were a higher percentage of Americans in this crowd than any other place I’ve been so far. When I asked people how long they were staying in Australia they would usually respond with “Two Whole Weeks!!!”

This crowd was a working crowd that could afford a 5 day long distance dive boat. I thought that the group would be experienced, but some of these people have been on hundreds of dives. Many of them had underwater camera housings that easily reached into the $4,000 dollar range and a few of them even had HD underwater video cameras. I quickly learned that Scuba is a lot like golf; you can get a lot of goodies and gadgets. It’s also a lot like golf in the sense that you don’t have to be in any sort of physical form to be very experienced. You don’t actually do any cardio work whilst floating under water.

Coming from the backpacker lifestyle, the culture shock disgusted me. What in the hell did these fat old people need with all that luggage for 5 days. I took a small backpack (the kind a kid would take to school). I wasn’t used to excess. I had effectively shed my gluttonous need for stuff over the past 2.5 months and to see everyone else around me still locked in just turned my stomach. I do have to admit that eating proper meals 3 times a day was a real treat and having ingredients like shards of parmesan cheese and cashew nuts in my salad was a true guilty pleasure. I found myself shoveling spoonfuls of the cheese and nut combo like it was its own food group. It’s funny how much you realize you missed something once you have it again.

In my ultra long career of 3 weeks diving I’ve learned that I am faster in “gearing up” (getting all my stuff on) than just about anyone. I find myself just waiting for people. For whatever reason, I just put the stuff on in one try and it tends to work out. The real mystery is what takes everyone else so damn long to get ready. Don’t get me wrong, in Snowboarding, I am always the last one ready for some reason, but in Scuba, I’m some sort of record setter. And I don’t even feel like I’m in a rush. But the divers of the Taka were extra slow. I actually timed them today and they took 20 minutes to get ready. And these guys are swimming around in 85 degree water with full wetsuits and gloves on. God forbid you might actually feel the normal water without some sort of high tech gadget being used.

The Taka is very lush compared to what I am used to. They provide two shower towels and a big beach towel for use on the deck. This is 3 more real towels than I am used to having. But of course the passengers never cease to amaze me when I smell shampoo after every dive. Some of these people are taking full on showers with soap and shampoo between every dive (we have 4 dives per day). This water is not particularly salty. I haven’t had a shower yet and there is absolutely no salt residue on my skin.

The water clarity out here is absolutely astounding. It was so clear at points that it just looked like we were on land and fish were flying around in broad daylight. They have a professional videographer on the boat who is making a DVD of the trip (very pricy) that I will be sending home to my parents (if it is good enough). If you want to see the clarity in HD, contact my mom J

On the way out to our dive site, there were dolphins riding the wake of the boat. It was a great site to see how little effort it took these creatures to keep up with the speed of the boat. Once at the site, we swam with a guide for the first dive because my buddy (in his fifty dives) had never been in the water without a guide. He was so incredibly uncomfortable and awkward in the water that it brought pain to my eyes. You’re telling me that this guy is 5 times as experienced and me and he couldn’t maintain neutral buoyancy?

The second dive was the infamous cod feed where we all went down to about 8 meters on the sand and the dive director of the trip fed a 400 pound giant cod (grouper) in front of each of our faces. I was first on the list and the giant was most hungry so when it grabbed the first piece of food, it rocked me back like an underwater land mine had gone off. It also made a distinctive sound that let you know there was some serious water being moved. It was an amazing experience, but there were so many people around (if you can call them people and not whales) that I felt like I was on a true tourist trap.

Later on that dive I was lucky enough to spot a lion fish. Lion fish are the beautiful ones that are not aggressive but if you touch them, you will probably get poked by one of their barbs and get the sensation of having your hand in boiling water for 18 hours. It’s not fatal but it’s more than enough pain and duration to make someone wish they were dead. Of course I couldn’t resist to just swim up to the fish and get less than a meter away.

I had a different dive partner for the cod feed than the first dive who was a bad ass from New York. He was muscle bound and dressed in the newest technology. His setup had to have been in the thousands. But he was a great dive partner seeing that he found the first moray eel that I have ever seen. Later that night, we had a dive where I would find a free swimming moray eel. It was a full grown 4-5 foot eel that was out of this world.

We did a third dive that was a lot lower visibility because there was a storm rolling in. The highlight was a red clam that appeared to be electric. It changed the colors in its mouth to entice fish to swim into it. To us, it looked like a mini runway for an airplane.

Before the night dive, the dive director gave us a great briefing. He told us about all the things we would see including the small sharks and the occasional tiger shark. He said that the tiger sharks (second most deadly shark in the world) could get up to 15 feet long and if someone spotted one that you must form the steel ring. The steel ring is a formation where divers face each other and lock arms in a tight circle. Once the arms are locked, you must tuck your head forward and pull your legs up (Aluminum dive tanks facing out to sea). The dive guide is to remain inside of the steel circle to navigate the group back to the boat. He said that the steel circle works almost every time because it confuses the shark. Then the director got into what to do if someone gets bit within the steel circle and ever so slowly made the story less and less believable. Eventually people realized that he was joking about the whole thing including the steel circle maneuver, but he sold it so well that we were all completely convinced.

The night dive was my second night dive and one of my favorite dives to date. There were a ton of very active fish and even a good amount of sharks. The sharks were only about 3-4 feet long and were not aggressive at all. The dive director explained a sport that you can do under water too. It’s basically playing god with your flashlight. You point your light at a small fish and a tuna sized fish promptly chases it down and eats it. You can do this all night. It’s really addictive. Its nature Plus.

The highest achievement in the night dive was definitely finding a 4-5 foot moray eel swimming in open water. During the day time, these animals are hiding in the cracks of the coral, but at night, you can see them in all of their magnificence.

Tonight we are making our way to osprey reef for the shark feed dive tomorrow.

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The Anatomy of a Backpacker

Sunday, April 5th, 2009

Since I’ve been gone I’ve been making some observations. Many of those observations are about the places that I’ve been and the people that I’ve seen, but I have some observations about the people who travel along side of me. The subject that I would like to talk about today is what makes a backpacker a backpacker.

One might assume that a backpacker is just another human, but it is my job today to prove that they are an entirely different species all together. There are races within that species of course, but make no mistake, they are not Homo sapiens.

A backpacker is a clever creature, sometimes surviving on 1-3 dollars per day for food. Similar to the gypsy nation, they have been known to set off away from home with less than a thousand dollars and somehow make it around the world for 7 months. Recent reports say that they have been seen in the fields of Australia’s fruit farms working for an unbelievable $18 AUD per hour. They can easily be seen at the hostel kitchen “nicking” a bit of food here and there to stay alive. Nicking is a word for acceptable stealing. You can Nick a salt shaker or a splash of oil to cook with; you steal a laptop computer to sell it for a plane ticket Singapore.

There is a word that is more erotic and arousing than any other in the English dictionary to a backpacker. The very whisper of this word will surely fornicate a backpacker’s inner ear. This 4 letter word begins with an F and is much more powerful than the 4 letter F word that humans go so crazy for. Free!

Free is something that strikes so deep in the heart of a backpacker that it can only be strengthened by compounding it with the second most powerful word in a backpacker’s vocabulary. It’s another 4 letter word that starts with an M. Where as humans find the word “Fuck” in the top ranks of arousal, the only word that could possibly be added to the word “Fuck” to make it any more arousing is the M word “Mother”. This can be used in several different fashions including such phrases as “Fuck your Mother.” and “… You Mother Fucker” and even “…. So I fucked YOUR Mother”. The Backpacker’s M word is “Meal” and the single most powerful phrase in the backpacker language is “Free Meal”.

The humans of Cairns have cracked that code and made it into a cutting edge marketing tool. Almost as if the heads of marketing for all the local bars are half backpacker themselves, they all have some sort of free meal deal at every major bar. The marketers know that if you feed them, they will come and right around the time they are done chewing, you can easily hit them in the face with a happy hour that will surely land them at your bar for the rest of the night. So the rhythm goes a little something like this: Free meal from 7pm- 8pm which includes 1 drink. Then from 8pm to 9pm happy hour (drinks are practically free). Then top it off with a wet t-shit contest or something from 9pm till 10pm where the drinks are full priced and you’ve got a bunch of drunken backpackers who are ready to pay out the nose for the rest of the night for small and watered down drinks. It’s a perfect system that at least 3-4 bars use successfully on a nightly basis.

Australia: Reasonable drinking laws?

At the bar and around town you will notice some policies that a drastically different than in the good old USA. In the Bar, Aussies will not serve someone a double drink or a shot of something. In addition, many bars have a 10 minute period at the end of each hour where they will not sell any alcohol. These provisions are designed to prevent people from getting too drunk. In addition, they will measure out the alcohol to the drop in a mix drink to make sure that your drink is not too strong. Gone are the nights where a 5 dollar tip will land you a “half and half” (half rum and half coke). Gone are the days where I can smell someone’s drink from 3 feet away. But on the more logical side of things, it’s ok to walk around in most public places with an open drink.

Back to backpackers though, the female kind will rarely shave their legs past their knees. Luckily for the males, most of the females are young and Scandinavian enough to have ultra fine blond hair in the first place. The females often carry a larger bag than the males in order to have enough clothes to match any occasion (I think those ones are usually Flash Packers (a backpacker with money)).

Wait a second, I’ve got a bone to pick with Aussies. It seems that they accept and mimic our Hollywood culture very well but the service culture absolutely could not be worse. I can read the invisible sign above their heads that says “I’m only at work here, what’s the rush?” Aussies work at a snail’s pace and apparently have zero pressure from their manager to speed up (probably because their manager has the same snail’s pace). It seems that they have figured out that the majority of someone’s adult life is spent at work so essentially they tend to live and not work. It’s more about them than it is about the customer. They have absolutely no ambition to make their day more efficient so that they can serve more people. They would be Sisyphus sitting at the bottom of the mountain with the bolder, lying on top of the bolder getting a tan. I can see how many jobs are not to be rushed, but the service industry is not one to drag your feet in. I seriously think that they are checking their Facebook when they stare at their computer screen for 5 minutes before checking you into your fucking room.

To make things worse, there is usually only one line to help all customers. In America (and I should hope everywhere else in the world) there is one line that checks people into their rooms, one line that checks them out, and one line for quick questions. This means that if you want to buy some laundry detergent, or 15 minutes on the internet, you don’t have to wait for 50 minutes. Being American (full of inventive and out of the box thinking) I tend to walk outside and call them on my cell phone (so that I get the front of the line) for any questions or errands (such as extending my reservations) that I don’t need to be physically present for. They hate this, saying “well are you here now?” “Nope, I’m actually nowhere near you now.” (I’m on a whole different level).

I recently met a local Aussie who just moved up to Cairns who completely agrees. He says “Oh it’s national. Aussies love to take their time and if you bring it to our attention, we get super passive aggressive. And it’s not like the Jamaican don’t worry, be happy type of slowness, it’s the it’s all about me attitude.”

More on the anatomy of a backpacker in the coming months, but for now I’d like to say that traveling in westernized nations is all about seeing people do the same things you do at home completely differently. Sometimes they do things much better than you do and sometimes they do it worse. It’s like jumping into a machine that can jump into parallel universes. As I move to eastern nations, I get to see something even more exciting, how people do completely different things than we do at home. For now its apples to apples but soon I’ll be off to Thailand where there will be nothing but oranges to choose from.

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