Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Diving in Bali

While João had grown up next to the ocean and surfed most of his life, he had never really had an interest in seeing what lay beneath the waves.  But this trip had given me a renewed interest in diving, and after a friend told me just how amazing it was in Bali, I knew I wanted to spend some serious time in the ocean during our time there.  I managed to convince João to give it a try, showing him photos of colorful reefs and incredible marine life, tempting his artist eyes to view this entirely different world.  And so, we wound up at Crystal Divers, a shop at Sanur in Bali, discussing rates for dive courses.  I already had my Open Water Diver certification, and after taking a few dive trips over the past few months, I wanted to upgrade to the Advanced certification, while João would be pursuing his Open Water.  

What seemed like it would be a straightforward process (sign up, pay, take the course, dive, done), became slightly more complicated when João revealed he had had asthma as a child, meaning he would need to take a lung capacity test to dive.  We scheduled a visit with the doctor, and while he confirmed that his lung capacity was fantastic, we discovered that he actually had a slight ear infection that needed to be cleared up before he could dive.  We had to delay our plans by a few days while we waited for his ear to heal, but the extra days relaxing in Sanur were wonderful, and we truly didn't mind the extra time.  Two days later, João began the first of two days at the dive shop, spending the mornings in a classroom setting and the afternoons practicing techniques in the pool.  I spent those days mostly relaxing on the beach, reading, writing, and getting in a run along the beach one morning.  

Joao and his instructor Amin for the first day of classroom and pool work

For my Advanced course, I simply had to do some bookwork - reading and answering questions at the end of particular chapters - then complete five dives over the course of two days to practice specific techniques - deep diving and navigation - as well as a couple of 'specialties' - drift diving, wreck diving, and fish identification.  Once João finished the classroom and pool work, his course required four 'check out' dives over two days.  He and I would go our separate ways for our first days of diving, then spend the second day diving together.

Day 1

While João would be staying closer to Sanur for his first dives, practicing some basic techniques in a shallower setting surrounded by incredible sealife, I was headed to Manta Point, Tugu at Nusa Penida, and Blue Corner at Nusa Lembogan for my first three dives of my advanced course.  The ride out to Manta Point was a long one, and we rode in a small speedboat that was tossed up and down over the choppy waves as we cruised to our dive spot.  I felt increasingly sick with the constant jolting, the rising nausea like the surging waves around me, and it wasn't any better when we stopped.  I looked out over the side of the boat trying to see the gorgeous scenery, the rock cliffs coming out of the water, but I couldn't focus on anything but sky sea sky sea sky sea as the boat shot up and down in the waves.  My instructor, 'Magic' Toto, tried to calm me down, explaining what to do if I felt sick and needed to vomit underwater, as I was clearly a bit green sitting in the boat.  Everyone else had already gotten in and descended, and I was worried that my course would be finished before it had even started!  Determined, I put on my gear and sat up on the edge of the boat.  And then, I turned and lost my breakfast all over the side of the boat.  With a quick apology to the crew and a quick prayer of thanks that I had gotten sick before my descent - the last thing I wanted to do was vomit underwater - I rolled off the back of the boat and into the water.  

I still felt a bit foggy as we slowly descended, and I struggled to clear my ears at one point, when I looked up to see a massive Manta Ray glide by off to one side.  I was equally thrilled to see the incredible animal and scared that it would be the only one I would see, while I was still so focused on my own body and my descent and unable to fully take in my surroundings.  Thankfully, I would have nothing to worry about in that respect!  As this was my deep dive, we did our full descent to 30 meters (100 feet), doing all the necessary exercises for my certification, while taking a look around for any Mola Mola (sadly, we didn't find any).  We gradually ascended up a bit, passing a sea snake in bands of grey and blue swimming through the water, and a colorful nudibranch on the ocean floor. 

Then, as we got higher, we saw them - a whole group of mantas, swimming in big loops, massive, majestic creatures gliding through the water like sea angels.  I was blown away… I lost count of how many there were - big and small, moving in a massive underwater circle - a mating dance.  Toto and I spent the rest of the dive staring in disbelief and wonder, no camera between the two of us, with a mass of divers all around us watching the creatures.  

Finally it was time to wrap up, and we swam far away from the crowd, where we could see nothing but clear ocean, stopping at a depth of 5 meters for our 3 minute safety stop.  And less than a minute later, my eyes grew huge as I quickly pointed behind Toto at the absolutely enormous manta swimming right towards us.  And it wasn't just one.  The entire line of mantas - I counted 12 as they swam by, but I can't be sure - flew right beside, over, and all around us, making their loops.  It was absolutely hands down one of the most incredible things I have ever witnessed.  Toto and I were both practically screaming and dancing with excitement under the water as the mantas glided all around us.  When we finally surfaced, he told me that was his best manta experience ever, and he has over 13,000 dives!  It certainly made up for being so sick before the dive!!

Magic Toto's dive log entry - dive # 13,492 - for our Manta experience

Thankfully the boat went to a much, much calmer spot for the second dive - Tuga at Nusa Penida - though the ride over was still plenty choppy.  I lay down on a bench and squeezed my eyes shut to try and keep the world from bobbing up and down so much.  One of the other divers felt so sick that he actually sat out the second dive entirely!  Toto and I went in last to give ourselves a proper surface interval, and the dive - this one for fish identification - was a very peaceful, calm, easy one, as we swam over thorny forests of brittle coral.  We spotted an enormous lion fish, a colorful blue and yellow nudibranch, an orangutang crab, a massive mantis shrimp, clown trigger fish, a school of butterfly fish, plus boxfish, needlefish, bannerfish, angel fish, surgeon fish, and bluefin trivali.  In my mind it's a blur of beautiful colors, and I imagined how João would react to taking it all in.

After the second dive, I rested out on the front of the boat, eating my lunch, soaking in the sun, before we moved on to the third location - Blue Corner at Nusa Lembogan - for a drift dive.  Toto was sneaky and actually allowed everyone to get in the water before asking the boat to shift to a slightly different spot which he swore was better, and I trusted him!  We plunged in and descended, and with the current it felt like everything was suddenly in fast motion!  As we floated, we stayed nearly motionless ourselves as the current carried us.  We had a couple of big sightings - first, a school of dolphins right at eye level passed by, then we saw two eagle rays and an enormous Napoleon ress fish.  Then, another pod of dolphins passed, closer to the surface this time!  After that, the currents became all mixed up, and it seemed we were swimming against the current both to peek over a large shelf and against the current again to go back, the water a mix of warm and very, very cold.  As we ended the dive, we saw unicorn fish with what looked like long, pointy noses, and other fish with gorgeous forked tails with touches of electric blue.  

Finally back on board the boat, we compared notes with the rest of the group - no molas, but everyone had seen the dolphins - and I curled up again to ride out the bumpy return trip, which was thankfully not so bad as the way out.  I was still a bit out of it and fairly exhausted when we got back, and I was anxious to find João and hear how his day of diving had gone.  While he had struggled with some of the more technical aspects - totally normal for a first day of diving - the sights he was able to take in were amazing, he said, and he was looking forward to seeing if the next day would be better as he would hopefully be more comfortable under the water and able to actually absorb his surroundings more.

Day 2

Our departure for our shared day of diving was incredibly early, as we met at the shop at 6:45, piling into a comfortable van for a two hour drive to our next dive site, Tulamben, the site of a wrecked US cargo ship sunk by a Japanese sub during WWII.  João and his instructor Uning were joined by Mark, who was working on a Dive Master certification, and I was paired with Amin, my instructor for the day.  We passed gorgeous tiers of bright green rice fields as we drove north, finally arriving in a much drier spot missing the lush greens with had just passed.  We climbed out of the van and geared up in the parking lot, and local women portered our tanks down to the shore on their heads!  This was my first shore entry, walking into the surf over smooth black rocks and descending by simply following the sloping ocean bottom downward.  

The wreck itself loomed over us on a steep slope, covered in corals, surrounded by fish.  Amin led me a bit away from the wreck at first, down to a deeper spot where we found a gorgeous - and huge! - blue nudibranch with a golden 'crown' coming out of its back - appropriately named a Cinderella nudibranch.  We worked our way back up to the wreck next, spotting some lion fish and mantis shrimp, as well as dozens of other colorful varieties of sealife.  We didn't really go into the wreck, but we did go through a couple of openings where it was still open to the surface above for safety purposes, but also provided gorgeous views with the tangled metal wreckage and the light from above.  

As we emerged from the wreck, off to the right we saw a garden of eels, their long, slender necks curving out of the ground like something from a Tim Burton movie.  Looping back around, we saw a huge sweetlips before slowly making it back towards the shore and emerging.  It was wonderful to see how thrilled João was coming up from the wreck - he had succeeded in feeling more comfortable with the technical components of the dive and been able to soak in his surroundings - and it was wonderful to be able to share the experience with him.   

After a rest, a snack, and some navigation review, we made our way back to the shore for our second dive.  I spent the first part of my dive navigating a small out/back and a square in a shallow sandy area before we swam around small outcrops of coral out a bit from the wreck, taking our time to view a whole family of 'nemos' - two larger ones and bunches of itty bitty ones - in a large pink anemone which seemed to be all alone in the sand.  We made our way back to one side of the wreck, seeing a juvenile ribbon eel with a small streak of blue poking out of the sand.  We then visited a massive grouping of cleaner shrimp that Amin obviously knew well, as he took out his regulator and opened his mouth, the cleaner shrimp creeped over to him, climbed in his mouth, and began to clean!  

After Amin's trip to the underwater dentist, we made our way back over to the sandy bottom area, to a spot Uning had dubbed the 'barracuda dentist'.  Sure enough, there was a large barracuda just hanging out, mouth slightly agape, getting his teeth cleaned by tiny fish!  We swam up to him, me sitting close by enough to where the barracuda actually turned at one point and swam right at me!  He then circled around in a small loop, returning to his dentist appointment.  After that we left him be, returning slowly to the surface and making our way out over the slippery rocks.

After removing and stowing all our gear, we rinsed off and went to a small restaurant around the corner for a meal of nasi gorang, then piled back into the van for the long drive back to the shop.  Once we returned, we filled out our logs and completed our paperwork, officially becoming certified as Open Water and Advanced Divers!  That day also marked my one year travel anniversary, so we capped off the day with a tasty dinner and a relaxing massage.

The entire diving experience in Bali was absolutely unforgettable for both of us, and ever since we've been looking for ways to get under the ocean again... including just a few days later.  After stopping in Ubud and visiting neighboring island Lombok, we would return to Sanur for one more dive trip, in hopes of giving João his own experience with the mantas. I'm so thrilled that I was able to introduce that world to João, and give him a glimpse under the waves that he had grown up with.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Three Weeks in Paradise: An Introduction to Indonesia

Somewhere back in Vietnam, there was a small but significant change in my relationship with the man I had visited in Portugal months earlier.  When I had left Portugal, we knew we wanted it to continue in some way, but we didn't really know what that would mean.  How we would feel after months apart.  If we could wait until my travels were over to meet again and see what happened.  But sometime around Vietnam, we had a number of conversations that brought us both to the realization that we wanted to not just wait and see, but really pursue this.  And as a result, he decided to fly all the way to Asia to visit me.  We settled on Bali, planning to spend three weeks exploring and relaxing in paradise, just after my run through China.

Since we were flying in from vastly different places, I arrived the evening before João.  While the flight with Philippine Airlines was quite nice - they showed a movie and even asked the tallest, largest people on the plane if they would like to have the exit row - the layover in Manilla was borderline awful - long bathroom queues, no wifi, and they only accepted local cash - no cards - so I couldn't buy any food or water.  Then upon arriving into Bali, customs agents searched every inch of my luggage and scrutinized my passport, curious as to why I had made so many trips in and out of Thailand (because it's logistically convenient?).  Though I was tired and delirious, as it was well past midnight at this point, I joked around with the one officer who could speak English, teasing the other officer who struggled to get all of my personal items back into my over-stuffed bag.  Thankfully, I had booked a few nights on points at a Marriott Courtyard resort at Nusa Dua to begin this experience as a proper vacation.  As my taxi neared the property, even in the dark, I could tell that we had entered what felt like a gated community, with trimmed and manicured grasses and hedges, and huge statues in every roundabout.  Entering the hotel, I was given tea and shown my room, where I collapsed into the massive, comfortable bed, slowly falling into a deep, restful sleep that I had been desperately needing after the last few weeks.

Roundabout in the daylight

I awoke nervous and excited for João's arrival, and I spent the day slowly exploring the resort "neighborhood".  There were other resort properties in this same section of the island, with separate beach access points and a shopping center within the "grounds" where I picked up a new bikini and a few essentials.  That evening, I booked a taxi to the airport - with a driver named Elfin - and though I brought a book to read as I waited, I kept my eyes glued to the gate where he would be arriving.  An hour passed, as taxi drivers jockeyed for position, shouting names of the people they were supposed to pick up, in hopes that the person who just walked out of customs was their passenger.  After another half hour, just as Elfin came to ask if he had arrived, I spotted him.  He saw me and smiled, starting towards the duty free store that the exit forces passengers through, then hesitated, coming straight to me for a brief but strong kiss, before we met at the exit for a proper embrace, then held hands in the taxi, in total disbelief that he was actually there, in Bali, and we were together again.

The next couple of days flew by, as we rented cruiser bikes from the hotel and took advantage of the gorgeous private beach, set in a quiet cove with small waves breaking in the distance.  We had a fantastic dinner at the shopping center, in a restaurant called Frangipani, tasting delicious pork grilled on skewers of lemongrass and sampling a local white wine.  We treated ourselves to a heavenly foot massage.  We got in a workout at the hotel gym, and we relaxed in the gorgeous pool, making friends with a man from Egypt and his wife from Iran.  We had a tasty if awkward dinner at the hotel, as a group having a meeting replaced the peaceful music with long speeches into a microphone.

Pirate on a private beach...

We actually hoped to spend another night at the hotel, where everything was expensive but easy, but it was fully booked up for just that one night.  And so we left the next morning without a real plan, catching a taxi to a dive shop in nearby Sanur on the eastern side of Bali in hopes that we could figure out diving options and where to stay.  We wound up at Crystal Divers, and after a quick stop at a small hole-in-the-wall restaurant for cheap, delicious local food, we went wandering down to and along the beach.  We passed resorts and private villas, little statues with tiny offerings, all with views of the far off ocean breaks against the reef.  We spotted a little cafe with a sign about a weekly dance performance at an adjoining restaurant, so we wandered through a long walkway, past a gorgeous garden full of frangipanis and other flowers, a tall statue with a little pond, numerous smaller statues, and a pool, before finally arriving at a reception area for a hotel and restaurant.  On a whim, we inquired about room prices, and we were happily surprised at how affordable it was.  We immediately moved into the Laghawa Hotel, what would become one of our favorite little spots on the island.  And it was a good thing, because we wound up staying in Sanur much longer than expected due to some challenges with our planned diving schedule!  But I'll share more about our diving experience next time.

Over the next few days, we relaxed and waited, we took courses, and we had incredible dives.  We also visited as many restaurants within a walkable distance as possible.  A nearby place called Terracotta had okay food, but the absolute nicest waitress, who told us about a Balinese holiday happening that evening.  We later spotted dozens of men and boys dressed in near identical, all-white shirts, long sarongs, and head wraps.  We had tasty curry and satay and You and Me Cafe, and sampled their crispy duck another evening.  Batujimbar was a fresh little cafe where we made frequent visits for salads and fresh fruit blends, though one Sunday they also held a local market where we sampled small bites of local specialties.  And our absolute favorite spot was a tiny gelato stand called Gelato Secrets, with unique flavors like cinnamon dragon fruit, ginger lime, apple pie, chocolate with candied orange peel, and salted butter caramel.  (There was also a location in Ubud, where we found roasted banana with cinnamon, and even a durian flavor!)

Local men and boys dressed up for a holiday

We also fully enjoyed the beach, relaxing on cozy chairs, sipping coffee, dipping into the calm water, and soaking in the sun, João often painting small watercolors as I read.  João also bought a black pirate ship kite from a beachside vendor, an appropriate gift for someone I affectionately refer to as my pirate.  We stayed late one evening drinking mojitos and taking in the colors of the reflected sunset, the clouds appearing as pink and purple tufts of cotton candy.  We stayed a while that evening, having long conversations under a blanket of bright stars and occasional fireworks from a distant resort.  We awoke early one morning to view the sunrise as well, sleepily cuddling on one of the beach chairs as the sky slowly brightened, brilliant colors of red and orange, with purple clouds and light reflecting off the glassy water.

Morning commute in Sanur

That evening, we also decided to check out a proper sunset, deciding when João's class ended a bit early to hop on a motorbike and drive to the opposite side of the island.  Google said it would take about 28 minutes to reach Canggu, a beach on the western side of the island.  Google lied.  We immediately hit heavy traffic leaving Sanur, then got pulled over by a police officer demanding to see an international driver's license, which basically meant he wanted cash.  He tried for $50 (João remembers him trying for $200 first!), saying the fine was $100, as we tried to negotiate.  We got him down to 200,000 rupiah (about $15-20), and when João handed him the cash, he turned to me and asked for the same from me!  We insisted we didn't have any more money, and he finally smiled and left.  Typical Bali.  It took us well over an hour of weaving through heavy traffic to make it over to Canggu.  When we reached the Betelnut Cafe - a spot that had been recommended to us - we simply left the bike and walked the rest of the way rather than spend another second on it.  Thankfully, we reached the beach at just the right time, catching an incredible sunset as we walked along the black sand beach, watching the probably hundreds of surfers attempt to catch the choppy ocean waves.  Off in the distance, huge kites flew through the air, and the mostly cloudy sky opened up at just the right time for an explosion of color and a reflection of the bright red sun in the waves below, before it disappeared entirely.  We had managed to catch both sunrise and sunset in a single day, on opposite sites of the island.

Gas Station in Bali

The evening commute

As the sky grew darker, we walked back to Betelnut Cafe and secured a table in the ground floor room.  We shared a delicious plate of spring rolls and an incredible bowl of curry, as well as a burrito (though the burrito wasn't nearly as good as the curry, which was outstanding).  Our drive back to Sanur was faster and involved a lot less traffic, but with the dark and the sheer distance was still difficult, and it took nearly an hour again.  We returned the bike immediately upon our arrival and picked up some ice cream to comfort our frayed nerves, before collapsing at the hotel.  

After spending a couple of days entirely consumed by diving, we had a final day to relax in Sanur before heading up to Ubud to explore a bit more of Bali.  We found a restaurant near the hotel called Three Monkeys, with open, airy, modern decor, with a second story patio and tall lanterns hanging from the ceiling over the floor space.  We sat at a table on the balcony, ordered a bottle of the local sparkling wine, an appetizer of roasted red pepper bruschetta, and two entrees to share.  We took a chance on the monkfish dish - it was amazing - and a plate of pumpkin ravioli with a brown butter sauce that was so rich it could have been dessert.  But we still ordered dessert - a decadent chocolate cake for me and a fruit tart for João.  The meal was absolutely incredible, and though it was the day after my one year travel anniversary, we felt this was a proper celebration for it!  

We spent most of the next morning still wandering around Sanur - checking out a "local market" which turned out to be just a few tents and tables with various clothing items and accessories, and we walked along the beach path, checking out the colorful fishing boats resting up on the sand.  We also passed a small artist stand with a man selling intricately decorated wooden eggs, deciding we might return to pick one up later as we were planning a return to Sanur for a bit more diving.  For lunch, we tried out the nearby Porch Cafe with tasty sandwiches, coffee, and scones.  Finally, we hired a driver at our hotel to take us to Ubud, not having much of a plan for when we arrived, but feeling that, as in Sanur, things would work themselves out…

Tiny offerings left out multiple times each day

Statues are often decorated with sarongs or fresh flowers

Typical fishing boats in Sanur