It’s been over a month since I’ve uploaded a post and as I sit here writing, I can’t help but think, how many times in my life, have I stepped back and thought, “Wow. Where has the time gone?” I find that this happens more often the older that I get. Because of my tendency towards looking forward – always anticipating some time or event in the future – I don’t often feel that I do a good job of living in the present.
I enjoy having something to do and feeling productive, quickly moving from task to task on my To Do list, particularly at work. But what happens when there is no “next task,” and the only thing you have to do is be exactly where you are?
But before I continue my musing, let me update everyone on what we’ve been up to over the past month.
As you may remember, I was struggling with homesickness in Laos over the holidays and desperately missing my family. Dean and I could have easily stayed in Luang Prabang for several more days enjoying the cute town along the Mekong but we made plans to be in Bangkok over Christmas to take advantage of fast wifi to video chat with family. On Christmas Eve, I decided that if we couldn’t have potato cheese soup and kraut bierok (my family’s traditional Christmas Eve dinner), we would have the next best thing – burgers. So we returned to our previously scouted burger restaurant and I enjoyed my rare beef patty with mushrooms, brie, and garlic aioli with curly fries. A true luxury in Southeast Asia!
The next morning, Dean and I awoke saying “Merry Christmas” and I offered to go to the Starbucks on the ground floor of our building to get coffee while he relaxed and cooked breakfast. On our previous trip to Bangkok, I had gone in the Starbucks to borrow the free wifi and had noticed that they were selling travel French presses. Dean and I were both hankering for control over our daily coffee after too many mornings spent drinking expensive americanos (when we could find a coffee shop) or worse still, instant coffee (the horror!). I had purchased a hat at a brewery in Hanoi and successfully kept it hidden for two weeks and knew that adding a French press to Dean’s small Christmas hoard would be a big surprise!
So I returned to a breakfast of scrambled eggs, fresh cut papaya, yogurt with granola, large Starbucks coffees, and a piece of blueberry cheesecake (because why not?). And after eating our breakfast feast, we exchanged gifts. I really enjoyed seeing the surprise on Dean’s face when I presented him with the hat and French press and my present was a super adorable card, originally purchased before the trip and carried for 2 months as well as the promise of a spoiling spa day.
We spent the next few hours, calling our families back home who were enjoying their Christmas Eve and then went out to shop for toiletries and get haircuts. It sounds rather underwhelming however, after the limited options in the smaller cities, it was a treat to find several luxuries like body butter and a pumice stone.
Dean found a street level barber shop in an alley, while I looked on my phone for a cheap salon. I finally found a place I thought would work and we entered an older, four story mall that now sold nothing but golf equipment and accessories. Seriously. Every store and open area was packed with rack upon rack of golf clothes, clubs, bags, etc. Imagine my surprise when I found a pair of really nice no-show athletic socks for $1.00USD a pair! When I was younger, I would have hated to get socks for Christmas, however after 2 and a half months of traveling, again, with a limited and often low quality selection of everyday items, I was beyond delighted to get cheap, high quality socks.
The remainder of the afternoon was filled with Thai massages, laundry, and a massive Korean BBQ for dinner. It was the perfect Christmas Day!
In the afterglow of Christmas, we repacked our bags to get ready for our 5 day scuba diving trip, living aboard the boat over the New Year. We had scheduled this trip at the end of October while in Nepal, shortly after being defeated in trekking to Everest base camp. In preparation for the diving on the liveaboard, we had traveled to Havelock Island in India to get our PADI Advanced Certification and for two months was the only truly fixed commitment on our calendar.
Flying through Phuket, near the south end of Thailand, we arrived in Khao Lak – a small beach town that is just now being developed for tourism – the embarkation point for liveaboard boats traveling to the Similan Islands.
Our boat, called the Oktavia, is Swedish owned with room for 20 divers, the accompanying Thai crew and (primarily Spanish) dive instructors. Over the next 5 days we would be living, traveling, and recovering on the boat in between our 19 dives, allowing us to enjoy some of the most beautiful dive sites in SE Asia.
Aboard were a mix of German, Swiss, Italian, Aussie, Dutch, Spanish and Chinese divers. Everyone spoke English and most of us enjoyed chatting during the short breaks between dives, swapping scuba stories and learning about life in other countries.
Over the following 5 days, we enjoyed some of the best reefs and most interesting underwater wildlife that I’ve ever seen. While all of the dives had their own charm, the best dives were by far those at Richelieu Rock, a small pinnacle in the middle of the Andaman Sea, closer to Myanmar than Thailand. Because the pinnacle is located so far from any other reef, the site is teeming with diverse wildlife using the pinnacle as shelter in the surrounding abyss of ocean. We did three dives here and each time, it felt like we were immediately dunked into a fish tank (or fish soup, as Dean fondly calls it).
Our days took on a consistent routine of waking up at 6:00am to enjoy the sunrise and drink our (French-pressed!) coffee with pre-dive toast. The boat only had instant and we were the subjects of much envy by having the ability to make real coffee. We then would meet for a dive briefing and were in the water by 7:30/8:00am. After our first dive, we would eat breakfast, relax for an hour or so and then it was time for another dive. We would then eat lunch, take an hour long siesta (well, I did at least) and then it was time for another dive. Then time for an afternoon snack, another couple of hours of down time (a possible second nap for Krista) and our choice of a sunset or night dive. Dinner was each night at 7:30pm, and we’d hang out afterward for a few beers, a little conversation, and were in bed by 9:00pm to do it all over again the next day.
There was a slight change to the schedule on New Years Eve as the mood on the boat was festive and after dinner, most people continued hanging out after their requisite two beers. Towards 9:00pm, we migrated to the captain’s quarters at the front of the boat where the Thai crew had apparently been celebrating for several hours. The party was in full swing with each person receiving a shot of liquor being poured out of a jar filled with what appeared to be wood chips. Upon entering the small apartment, I was immediately handed a glass filled with the noxious liquid and dutifully took the shot. Dean hung out behind me at the doorway and therefore dodged the bullet.
Over the next hour or so, the cabin became more and more crowded as word of the party spread throughout the boat and more of the group decided to join, jumping up and down to the Thai techno music and shouting people’s names when handed a shot. It reminded me of the college parties we used to throw in Laramie.
We decided to leave the small cabin as the Thai’s broke out the silly string, almost hitting me in the eye and risking explosion as people were smoking and the stuff is highly flammable. This is about the time when Dean threw in the towel and headed down to the cabin, while I stayed on the main deck, dancing with the group who was slowly migrating out to the larger space.
At around 10:30pm, I also decided to head to bed. The party however continued and we woke up briefly at midnight to the sound of fireworks and people crying, “Happy New Year.” I reached over to Dean, gave him a long kiss and whispered, “Happy New Year indeed.”
Upon arriving back to shore the night of our fifth day, we said good-bye to our amazing dive crew and were packed into vans to be dropped off 2.5 hours south in Patong, Phuket. I had booked an AirBnB with a kitchen and laundry facilities as I knew we were going to need a few days of downtime after the boat. What I hadn’t anticipated was that the apartment was spread across two cramped levels, with an awkward spiral staircase leading down to the bedroom whose floor to ceiling windows looked out onto a brick wall. The kitchen had the bare essentials for cooking and it was located in a quiet area with only one restaurant within walking distance, meaning that we had to rent a motorbike to go down to Patong, a super touristy, party going beach town (think Cancun on steroids), to buy groceries or find meals.
Both Dean and I were in sorry shape as he broke his toe on the last day of the liveaboard and I was struggling with land sickness, feeling the rolling of the boat every time that I moved. To make matters worse, I had come down with food poisoning, resulting in a night of fever and stomach cramps, leaving me weak and cranky the next day. I spent the entire day in bed, eating soda crackers and wanting to go home. Up until this point, I had been dealing with bouts of homesickness but I hadn’t been serious about going home early. As I laid in the uncomfortable bed, looking at the brick wall, all I could think about was how much I hated this place and how much I wanted to be back in my own house, in my own bed, cuddling the Bodeman for emotional support.
While packing up that night, Dean and I talked about the impact that your surroundings can have on your well being. Because I’ve lived in my own house for 7 years, I’m don’t often stay in spaces that I find uncomfortable. Even with all of the traveling that I did in 2016 for work, I became very accustomed to the average hotel room set up and could deal. But there was something about feeling wretched in this apartment that exacerbated the situation and I couldn’t wait to leave the next day.
Upon arriving in Chiang Mai, I could already tell something was different. For starters, the apartment was spacious with a comfortable king bed, full kitchen, and a balcony overlooking a large Buddhist Wat with the mountains in the distance. I immediately found a large, Western style grocery store and even though I didn’t recognize half of the items on the shelves, I was able to find fixings for fajitas. Because we eat out for the majority of our meals, I get really excited when we find an AirBnB that has a kitchen and even better yet, has the necessary pots, pans and dish-ware to cook a full meal. It’s a small thing but I truly miss the full ownership of what I put in my body as well as the catharsis of cooking.
Over dinner, we planned out what to do with our 10 days in Chiang Mai. Both Dean and I were excited to interact with elephants, explore the Old City, visit the weekend markets, drop into some trendy coffee shops, and spend time recovering from our hectic couple of weeks. Since I was still feeling poorly from my bout of food poisoning and struggling with land sickness, we took the first few days easy, hanging out at local restaurants and reading in the sunny apartment.
On the third day, we woke up early for an hour and half long ride in the back of a ‘tuk-truck’ with 8 other people to visit the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, an organization that has rescued over 90 elephants and keeps them at 10 different sites, or camps, that are open daily for visitors. We joined a group of 15 or so other people and commenced our half day elephant interaction.
Our guides started by explaining the history of elephants in Thailand. First, elephants are indigenous to the area, many having been caught and used in the logging industry or trained for third rate circus shows. They were treated very poorly, and often repeatedly beaten with hooks to control behavior. In 1989, Thailand outlawed the use of elephants as beasts of burden, improving conditions for the animals but also leaving the owners with the conundrum of how to care for the expensive animals. During this time, many sanctuaries were started, promoting ecotourism to fund daily care and feeding while allowing visitors up close interactions with these beautiful creatures. Each elephant has a companion, or mahout, that seems to be the primary care giver.
They then wheeled out a large cart (about the size of a chest freezer) filled with whole bunches of bananas and cut pumpkins and we were advised to grab as many bananas as possible to make friends with the 6 elephants that make up the “family” that lived in the camp. At first, the large animals were a little intimidating. But after several trips to the cart, we became comfortable with the huge beasts and enjoyed feeding, petting and taking selfies.
After feeding time, we moved down to a small damned off pond where the goal was to spread wet mud on the hides of the animals as it’s good for their skin. I was a little skeptical however 4 of the elephants stood in the pond while we smeared them (and ourselves) with mud, and if they didn’t enjoy it, at least they tolerated it. Two of the mahouts let us know that their elephants didn’t particularly enjoy the mud, which I thought demonstrated their care for the animals themselves rather than simply providing a show for the tourists.
Next we made our way down to the a small river where the elephants spent 30 minutes washing off the mud and playing in the water. It was amazing to watch them interact, poking each other with their trunks and rolling around, sometimes on top of each other.
After the bath, it was time for us to eat lunch and we enjoyed a small buffet of curry, rice and fresh fruit. There were several pieces of fruit that I hadn’t eaten and therefore I asked if I could feed it to one of the elephants who was lounging nearby in the shade of a wooden platform where many of the mahouts were hanging out. Sensing that I had a treat, the elephant raised its’ trunk through the platform, seeking. We then spent the next several minutes feeding our leftover fruit through the platform. It’s lucky that Dean got a video as it’s one of the best moments of my life.
Overall, our time in Chang Mai was great. We’d gotten over the hump of homesickness around the holidays and recovering from our action packed New Year not to mention the benefits of a number of amazing experiences: hanging with elephants, taking a Thai cooking class, experiencing world famous latte art, eating street food at a packed night market, sampling the northern Thai cuisine (can you say Khao Soy?!), and enjoying nightly sunsets from our balcony.
We also had plenty of time to plan the next leg of our trip. I had originally wanted to end our time in SE Asia with a trip to Bali, imagining myself having a life changing experience like Liz Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) in the idyllic rice pattied jungle. However a large volcanic eruption had occured in November and people were uncertain if the large Mount Agung was finished causing problems. So we looked into several other island nations that would allow us to go diving, but after a little research we decided volcano be damned.
One of the amazing dive instructors on our liveaboard, a Catalonian ex-lawyer named Pato, had given us the contact information for two friends who are currently running a dive shop in Lembongan, a small island 45 minutes fast boat ride from Bali. So we reached out to Dani and Anna and sent a down payment for a 6 days of diving at Two Fish Dive Resort.
We arrived in Bali at 1:30am and narrowly avoided catastrophe. The volcano didn’t erupt or anything, but while waiting for our backpacks to make their way around the carousel, someone grabbed my bag. It was an honest mistake as his bag (identical to mine) came around on the carousel a minute later. I didn’t notice until I picked up the bag and I realized that my hiking boots were not protruding from the front pouch. Dean, being the fast thinker, grabbed the backpack and sprinted through the crowd, catching the guy just before he exited customs to switch bags.
Two days later, we arrived in Lembongan. After getting settled, we meandered out to the beach for dinner and to enjoy a beautiful sunset over the water. Unbeknownst to us, this was the only sunset that we would see during our stay in Bali.
The next day, we woke early to eat breakfast and head out on the boat for our first day of diving. Considering this is rainy season, and therefore low season for tourism, there were only 4 divers on the boat. While it was raining on the surface, we enjoyed diving the shelved reefs on the North side of the island, looking at prestine hard and soft corals and the multitude of fish that live in the vibrant landscape.
Over lunch, we were introduced to Meg and Sal, two Americans from LA, who are going to run the Two Fish in Gili Air, a nearby island. A year ago, Meg and Sal had been on a similar journey, having quit their jobs and deciding to travel SE Asia. They started diving and couldn’t stop, deciding to become Scuba Instructors instead of going home and picking up their lives in food service (Sal is a chef). We heard a similar story from Dani and Anna, who have rented out their apartment in Barcelona for the last 12 years while working in dive shops across the globe. It definitely gave us food for thought and an interesting topic of discussion over dinner each night. Could we leave behind our lives in the US? This trip was supposed to be a temporary sabbatical, but what if we decided to make it permanent?
The next day, we went to see the mantas. Lembongan is famous for two dive sites, Manta Bay and Manta Point, both areas highly frequented by the manta rays who live around the island year round. Mola mola, or sunfish, are also common here but only during the high season as they prefer colder waters.
We got a reminder that it was rainy season as the seas were very high and we spent the 30 minute boat ride being pelted with rain. However upon arriving in Manta Bay, our boat crew spotted three mantas so we quickly got ready and rolled into the water. Throughout the dive, we were rewarded with multiple sightings of mantas and it was amazing to see the size (some are as large as 6 meters/18 feet across) and majesty of these gorgeous creatures.
We got to see mantas twice during our 6 days of diving in Lembongan. We were also rewarded with the only mola sighting in the last 2 months and one of the best dives that I’ve done done, called Mangrove. Imagine a seemingly endless reef, brightly colored with bulbous corrals and technicolor fish of all sizes in every direction. Every few minutes, you stumble upon something of note: a turtle swimming directly in front of you, an octopus hiding under a large shell, purple puffer fish, and so much more. It was an experience I will always remember.
After Lembongan, we traveled to Ubud. A small, inland town located in the jungle and rice patties and the yoga and health food capital of Bali. This is the area featured in Eat, Pray, Love and the idyllic scenery in the movie is what inspired my desired to find a beautiful AirBnB and hang out for a week of relaxation, reflection, and writing. The only problem is that the bungalow we rented was a little too nice, and instead of posting up at the large community dining table to write every day, I decided to sit by the pool, reading. To be fair, the weather was extremely hot and in order to survive (I’m a cold weather person by nature), I required constant dips in the pool and typing while wet seemed like a bad idea.
Better yet, let me take full ownership for my decision. I didn’t feel like writing. I felt like sitting around, enjoying the jungle environs and infinity pool by sitting on a lounge chair, reading and napping in between dips in the water and working on my tan. I felt like relaxing with the only pressing concern of what to eat when hungry.
How often in my life have I had the luxury of an empty calendar? Sure, every weekend or vacation I have the choice of doing nothing but there’s always a part of my brain that is thinking about my commitments on Monday, or how much work I’ll have when returning. In Bali, I’d seemed to have hit a sweet spot where I truely was in the moment, fully relaxed and enjoying every second as it came.
It’s a new sensation for me, and one which I realize is very important for me to learn. Otherwise, I run the risk of living a life of planning, constantly anticipating that next thing, instead of simply enjoying the moment that I’m in. Because one of my biggest fears is to look back at the end of my life and think, “Where did the time go?”