Monthly Archives: September 2012

Diving in Gili

Our second day on the island I started my Open Water Certification at Diversia with half a day in a classroom watching dated 80’s PADI videos on how to be a safe scuba diver. Then got right into the pool that afternoon with Ambra, my instructor. Everyone always said that the first breath of oxygen underwater was enough to change your life. Of course, since I’m me, the first breath, and then the second and third and fourth had me believing I was not getting enough oxygen and was surely going to pass out under water. (Imagine me hyperventilating under water from fear of not getting enough air.) We tried to do one small trip when I alerted Ambra that I had to get to the surface right away, (which was presently only 1 foot above my head!)

I lifted my head and gasped for air convinced I might pass out, or cry. I then proceeded to calm myself down. Thousands, if not millions, of people do this every single day. I could do it. So I took a few deep breaths and we tried again. Slowly, but surely, every new skill and step came to me and I did them each at my own pace. Ambra was endlessly patient and for that I was grateful. We concluded day 1 of my course and I excitedly and nervously awaited day 2 where I would have my first open water (in the Ocean) experience!

Day 2 came and we took a morning dive to Manta Point where there are, disappointingly, almost no Manta Rays left. Don’t even get me started on the environmental component of what’s going on there, but needless to say that is very sad. Every day consisted of a morning dive, a break for lunch, and a second dive at around 1 PM. I was scared to fall backwards off the dive boat, and the locals who worked for the dive shop asked me “Ready to go?” when I nervously looked back, panic stricken and said, “YOU MEAN NOW?!?” he assured me all my equipment was in place (even though I had already checked it myself about 5 times before we got to this stage.) and I finally took the plunge and fell back into the gorgeous water.

I met my coach at the back and we began our descent into the crystal blue water, (I can assure you the clarity of the water helps with the fear factor!) Once we got about 12 meters under and I could see fish swimming in all directions as far as the eye could see, and giant sea turtles hanging out at the bottom or swimming above us, I knew I had done something incredible!

I was in complete awe of what surrounded me and couldn’t believe I had actually overcome my fear of the ocean and the thoughts of fish coming up to nibble on my extremities. Our first dive was followed by a second that afternoon where we saw a shark! A SHARK!! But since I had already clarified with my instructor earlier in the day that these are in fact not the people-eating kind, I was remarkably calm as the black tip reef shark swam our way and quickly turned and went on his way when we realized we were not to his liking.

After leaving the ocean that day a new passion had been ignited and I could not wait to get back into the water the following day. How could I have waited so long to dive in the first place?

Seeing the World Below

We arrived in Gili Trawangan after what felt like two long days of travel, (in fact, it almost was!) and were grateful to wake up with the morning sunshine and have breakfast on our private patio. Granted “breakfast” was not quite what we hoped for – read, 1 egg between two slices of bread – but still it was nice to be outdoors in the sun awaiting the day’s events to unfold- which for the moment were planned to be lots of lying in the sun catching a tan.

We wandered down to the beach and found a minimally rocky area to lay our towels and heavy bodies down. The beaches in Gili are unbelievably beautiful, the views lay clear to Bali and the mountainous and volcanic terrain of nearby Lombok, and the color of the ocean water is crystal blue. The only downside was the broken bits of coral littering the beach, so you had to be quite careful when entering the water or you were bound to stub a toe or sustain some other kind of toe damage.

The sun would grow hot and our stomachs would grow hungry so around midday every day we’d wander the single road that runs through the outer edge of the island in search of some shelter from the sun and island goodness to fill us up. On that first day we wandered to different dive shops in search of the perfect mixture of fun and diving where A could continue his 12 years of diving and I could have my (gasp!) first experience!

We finally settled on the small, but wonderful, Diversia Dive Shop. What an amazing choice we made! Every person on staff was so friendly and helpful and laid back. We found ourselves wandering to the shop even on days when we had nothing scheduled just for the laughs and good company.

So the holiday became not just about sun, but also about me learning to dive – a goal which had terrified me for many years, but I was finally determined to accomplish!

To be continued…

Traveling South – Bali Bound

After saying farewell to Japan we hopped a much longer than anticipated flight down to Southeast Asia (think American-in-Europe style Asia traveling…oh, sure it’s close – it’s all in Asia!) We stopped over for a night at some raggedy hotel near the airport in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia¬†where a towel cost extra and breakfast was a runny egg with a slice of toast then headed for warmer waters down in Indonesia.

Our feet touched ground again in Bali where the site of tourists by the hundreds flooded our eyes and we dodged crowds to check ourselves in to our next leg to Lombok. With a few hours to kill in between we wandered out of the airport to a somewhat ragged-around-the-edges part of the island known as Kuta. We were on the hunt for money, since our Japanese Yen would no longer serve us here. Along the way we found broken sidewalks, banks closing before official closing time, and a tiny hole-in-the-wall eatery that was packed to the brim. Jackpot!

We watched the women at the helm crushing up peanuts and slicing papayas and preparing fresh noodles with watering mouths. We ordered one of everything “that guy has” except there was not a common language spoken between us. So our ordering consisted more of A pointing to mixing pot in front of woman and nodding, woman trying to ask some question, A and Amanda smiling back in tentative agreement. In the end, food was prepared, stomachs were filled, and these two tourists were happy. All for about 1 Dollar!

We caught a taxi back through Kuta to the airport, (which ended up taking a surprising hour or more to walk to,) and awaited the flight to take us to our next slice of heaven, Gili Trawangan. Arriving in Lombok, I was shocked to see how brand new and beautiful the airport was. What a shock it was compared to the chaos of Denpasar (Bali)! We learned this airport had only just been built and was quite a ways outside the city center, as compared to the previous airport which was must easier for tourists to get to. Guess that’s the price you pay for “modernization” and “accessibility”.

We were greeted by a local man and his son who were meant to usher us to our bungalow on Gili. We took the 2 hour drive through the Monkey Forest (which we could not fully appreciate until the trip home when we did it in daylight hours) and hopped on a small boat for a 20 minute ride to heaven. Upon arrival we were greeted by two locals who apparently managed our “hotel” and who, thankfully, dragged our bags up the sandy beach to the door of our bungalow.

We made it at last!

Rockin’ Osaka

After a long week of traveling throughout Tokyo and Kyoto, (long in the sense of dizzying jet-lag and nonstop walking,) we headed to Osaka for our last night in Japan. Unfortunately, we didn’t leave ourselves much time, but still managed to cover quite a bit of ground in the 24 hours we had until flight time.

Osaka is known most famously for its Octopus Balls (Octopus meat rolled into ball shape and fried, get your mind out of the gutter!) While I did not eagerly partake, my travel partner certainly did!

Osaka also has a famous district known as “Dontonburi” where all the bright lights of the world seem to converge in a 20 block radius. There are restaurants, bars, clubs, casinos, shops, etc all within these streets and your head is swimming from the brightness of it all. There is even an “American Section” complete with cowboy and rap star paraphernalia.

We managed to wander back and forth through the streets, trying to seek out some Kobe beef (which is ominously absent in Osaka) and settled for some omelette-esque fare instead, (though most often I would “settle” for fried noodles!)

We even made some new friends – some of the American/European/College kid clueless about life variety, and some of the “this would be completely racist in any other country” variety.

After walking and eating to our hearts’ content, it was time to say good bye to beautiful, unique, and crazy Japan. Good bye to the friendly people, the shy English, the bizarre and often delicious foods, and the hi-tech toilets found everywhere. So we bid adieu with promises to return in the future.

Tradition prevails in Kyoto

Our next stop on our grand tour of Asia was Kyoto, the heart and soul of Japan. Kyoto is what you think of when you imagine traditional Japan, with gorgeous landscapes, shrines everywhere you look, and Geisha rushing down the streets to get to their next party. It is worlds away from the chaotic and metropolitan Tokyo, with small buildings lining the narrower streets and less people per square foot than even the quietest Tokyo neighborhoods.

When visiting this historical city, we opted to stay at a traditional Ryokan style inn that are known for their exceptional hospitality, and cuisine. Essentially you are staying in a room with very minimal furniture. When you walk in, there are tatami mats lining the floor, a small table, and two “chairs” without any legs in the middle of the room. We were lucky to have a small alcove off to the side to put our suitcases (as I had read many of these inns do not.) When you are ready for bed, you move the table and chairs off to the side, unroll the mattresses from the closet (where you put them away in the day,) cover them with a sheet and pillow, and then unroll the comforters provided to you. Voila – bed time!

Some of the Ryokans are fancier than others, with private traditional wooden baths, or a common bathing room with one of the traditional Onsens (usually baths filled from natural hot spring water,) but these can run you anywhere from 250-500 per person per night. We opted for a “budget” Ryokan, which was far from it, but was likely a bit more rugged than the more expensive counterparts.

Speaking of, the region surrounding Kyoto is famous for their Hot Springs and Onsens. Everyone will tell you to take the time to visit these healing baths, and after days of walking around non-stop, you will definitely appreciate the advice! We managed to find a traditional Onsen in the city which was meant for the local community to go for their weekly bath. It was such a strange experience as a Westerner to be in this bathhouse with 15 or so other women cleaning and grooming themselves in front of the mirror and then relaxing in one of the 9 baths on offer, ranging from traditional wooden, super hot with jets, electrical (this one was a bit more frightening to me as I could feel the electricity running through my body,) two outdoor options – one hot, one freezing, and a couple of others that I couldn’t quite tell the difference between, but there were some different scents or materials used for each of the options.

The cleaning procedure, as I learned after studying everyone else, is to choose a mirror and a spigot (don’t forget your soap or a bucket to clean yourself, as I had!) then you sit on the bucket and start to cover yourself with water (yes you are only a few inches off the ground as a bucket would imply.) Run your hair under the water, lather it up, do the same with the soap on your body, and rinse yourself clean. Or if you choose, as was acceptable for both men and women, feel free to shave or groom yourself in any other way most westerners would be ashamed to do in public! Once the bath is over, leave your cleaning supplies by your spigot and feel free to enter the baths as you please, for as long as you want.

After our bathing experience (men and women are kept separately, by the way,) we headed off to the city for an incredible dinner chosen by the chef of a small restaurant we happened upon. This might sound a bit fancier than it was in reality, given that every menu in Japan is in Japanese characters with little to no explanation of what you are ordering. We found we generally had to order randomly by pointing to scribbles on a page and just waited to see what would arrive to our waiting lips. Sometimes we were lucky enough to find a waiter or hostess with minimal English who could understand the basics, such as chicken or noodles, but very frequently we were not. Also important to note, the “thumbs up” is understood everywhere.

The Japanese are very proud of their culinary traditions, many of the options varying from region to region, so you can usually rest assured you will be eating the freshest, tastiest preparations of the season. And if you eat fish, (which I don’t,) you are in for an even better surprise as you will find the freshest fish in the world throughout Japan. Regardless of this, you are in for a treat almost anywhere you go.

Generally speaking, Kyoto is the traditional and cultural hub of Japan. There are some 400 shrines in Kyoto and the surrounding regions, and every shrine is surrounded by beautiful nature and manicured gardens, including a gorgeous Bamboo forest we took the time to explore one day.

Every local you tell that you are exploring this region of their country is excited for you to get a glimpse of the “real” Japan. And from sampling the local foods, to biking around the markets on the weekend, to dodging rain in a quiet cafe nearby,¬†I’d say we most certainly did see what real Japan is like.