Taking it to the Sea

It is no surprise to regular readers of this blog that I am not the Sportiest of Spices.  As much as I sometimes think I would like to be a runner, I have no stamina and I definitely do not have any rhythm for Zumba or the like. (Heck, I can’t even get an elliptical to run smoothly!) So, it may come as quite a shock to those same diligent readers to learn that I am now officially a PADI SCUBA certified diver! That’s right. After two days of closed water courses as the embassy pool (click here for those details), I headed to the scenic Tioman Island last weekend to do my open water courses for final certification.  (Look for more on the travel itself in an upcoming blog, tentatively titled “From Marsing to Mersing”!)

Finishing my certification required four open water dives, each of which turned out to be a bit of an adventure in and of itself;  luckily, I had a good group of colleagues/classmates (and, of course, my dive buddy for life!) who braved the journey at the same time. I had been dreading this weekend for months, not sure if I would be able to actually complete the course without total panic setting in. As a matter of fact, for the entire week before the trip, I felt like I used to feel during finals week in college. I just wanted it to be over, for better or for worse. Good grades or terrible grades, certification or no certification, just let the stress end.

We made it to Tioman by midmorning on Friday, dropped our stuff in our rustic (clean, but low on amenities, like a flushing toilet) cabin and headed directly to the dive shop. We were off and running with no time to fret. This was smart planning.

Open Water Dive #1

 This dive is meant to be just a dip of a toe into ocean waters. After becoming comfortable in the pool (not an easy task to begin with in my case), it can be a huge jump from knowing the surface is always just a few feet overhead to being in a much less controlled situation. Because this was a shore dive, we had to suit up at the dive shop and walk to the ocean, a few hundred meters away. Let me just remind you that I am about the wimpiest person on the face of the earth (I’ve never been able to do a single pull-up and I could do maybe three pushups if my life depended on it), so hauling that tank about did me in. Picture Quasimodo in a bathing suit. Once we reached the water, it was a literal weight off of my shoulders.

For the first dive, we only went down about five meters and I don’t think I even realized we were that far down, though my ears screamed we must be at the bottom of the Marinas Trench. This session was mostly about passing off skills that we had previously practiced in the pool and it all went well until we had to change from our own regulator to the spare one our dive buddy was carrying. (Thad has been my dive buddy throughout this process. If you want to send him condolences, I can provide you with contact information! He definitely got the short end of the dive-buddy stick.)  I took my regulator out and grabbed his spare one, only to have the mouthpiece of it fall off! Luckily, our dive instructor was there and handed me back my own regulator before I even realized what was happening. Before I knew it, I was back breathing my own air, Thad’s spare was fixed and away we went.

The biggest issue for this first time out to sea for me was my ears. They just wouldn’t equalize! I’ve never had a problem with them when we fly, but for some reason the water pressure really got to me. My ears would not pop! (I also realized on this trip that I apparently do not know the difference between my nose and my mouth. I would try to hold my nose and breathe through it to pop my ears and each time, air would come flowing out of my regulator. Or, I would take a deep breath in preparation for clearing my mask, only to realize my entire breath went out my mouth instead of my nose, leaving me with salt water to the eyebrows. After three plus decades of life, how do I not know the differences between these two parts of my respiratory track?!?)

Since this was a shore dive, it meant surfacing and wading back to shore the way we had come, which was fine until a wave crashed me into a bit of coral, leaving a rather nice scrape on my right leg. My first (but surely not my last!) SCUBA injury! (Can I be on the SCUBA DL?)

Dive #1 was only about twenty minutes and while we didn’t see a whole lot worth reporting home, it was nice to have some fish to look at while my classmates checked off their skills, rather than staring at the pool tiles like I had done in the past. Watching bright little fish flit does a much better job keeping my mind calm than smudgy blue tiles.

Open Water Dive #2-

This is where the poo hit the fan. Dive two was another shore dive, but rather than wading in from the beach, we all did the “giant stride” off the end of the jetty. I did a much slower ascent on this dive, hoping my ears would take care of themselves, which they did, kind of. They never fully equalized and while they weren’t killing me like the first dive, there was definite pressure as I went lower and lower.

Once I finally reached the bottom with my classmates, we were all just floating in a circle, waiting for another round of skill checks when I felt a nip on my leg. Already a bit freaked out about the possibilities of hostility beneath the sea, I looked at my instructor, wide-eyed, only to see him laughing (as much as is possible through a mask and regulator.) He pointed at white and yellow fish and then made a biting motion with his hands. Not a second later, I felt the nip again. That dang little fish was biting me! Apparently, I had invaded his territory and he was having none of it. Jerk fish! (To be fair, maybe I was the jerk by stationing myself right on top of his house, but still…)

Dive two was going swimmingly (yup, I went there!) until the end, at which point it the whole thing went a bit south. We were all supposed to head back to the jetty, but a strong current kicked up and no one could make any progress under the water. Some divers made it back to a rope as a meeting place, but others of us were hauled in the wrong direction. Soon, we all surfaced, but fighting the current on the surface was no easier than below. For every foot of progress I made, I lost the same amount of ground. Using a brightly colored fence on the shore as my gauge, I quickly realized that I was getting nowhere, quickly.

After nearly half an hour of paddling (remember, I am a terrible swimmer and super wimpy) I pretty much thought I was going to die. With the shore just 100 meters or so to my right, I had pretty much resigned myself to death at sea (or at least the need for a boat rescue.)

Instead, though, I gave up on the jetty as a goal and just headed inland. It didn’t matter that I still had two more skills to check-off; I was done. I aimed my body for shore and paddled like mad. Before long, I realized most of my classmates had done the same thing. No one could fight the current any longer and we all just wanted out of the water at that point.

To shore we headed!

Meeting up again on the beach, the general agreement was to call it a day and to finish our skills during the first dive on day two. Even the instructors seemed surprised at the strength of the current! (Neither of them made the jetty either, both making for shore with the rest of us.) Friday evening, as we sat at the dive center, filling in our dive logs for the day, one classmate succinctly and cheekily summarized the dive in his log with a single sentence, “We damn near died.”

Day one was done. I had a nice battle wound; I provided a bit of nourishment for an angry fish; I bobbed at sea like a tropical Titanic survivor. I finished.

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A Different Sort of Vacation

Growing up, vacations and education were synonymous. When we loaded up the car to go on a trip, it wasn’t always about the destination, but the sites along the way, be they historic, the natural wonders of the world or of the museum/zoo/aquarium realm. The one time I remember taking a purely “fun” family vacation to Disneyland and Sea World in southern California; both outings ended with an unnamed sibling, with terrible motion sickness, puking- first at Disneyland, meaning we had to pack it in for the day, even though I had only been on the teacup ride once and then a few days later, after we left Sea World, but all over my brand new dolphin stuffed animal. (Needless to say, that was a short-loved toy, as it was forever tainted with kid-spew in my mind.) Apparently, sticking with educational outings was for the best.

Not only did we always head to places that would allow us to see amazing natural creations (the Redwood Forest, the paleontological digs of Dinosaur National Park and the tide pools of the Oregon Coast, the latter of which I’m still obsessed with, not being able to go anywhere near a good tide pool without a poking stick in hand to prod around in the shallow waters for anemone, starfish, crabs and other fun sea creatures) and just as spectacular man-made ones (the monuments of Washington DC, the Grand Coulee Dam and the LDS temple in Salt Lake City), but the ride itself was ensconced in learning. Before heading out on each trip, we’d make a shorter jaunt to Boise to the “teacher store,” where my parents (both teachers!) often got supplies for their classrooms. With no in-car DVD players to entertain kids on long trips, we went a more bookish (and possibly nerdy) route. Each of us got to choose a workbook from the teacher supply store to work on in the car. The choices were endless: math workbooks, phonics workbooks, reading workbooks, social studies workbooks, science workbooks… You name the subject and there was a grade-level appropriate book to go along with it. I think I mainly steered towards the ones with reading passages and then content and vocabulary questions, not getting within 100 feet of the math section of the store. (Who in their right mind does math on vacation?!) With our shiny new purchases in hand (and maybe a fun new pencil or stamp from the tempting piles near the register), we were ready to head out for locations unknown.

As an adult, most of my vacations have followed this same pattern. (Okay, less workbooks to entertain me along the way, but those have been replaced with the books I read aloud to Thad as he drives- usually something non-fiction, so it really isn’t too far of a stretch from those childhood vacations.) We travel to places where there are new things to see and do, whether it be to the amazing waterfalls at Iguazu to the far reaches of the Chinese territory in Xingjiang to the spectacular Bayon Temple in Siem Reap to the ancient Coliseum in Rome. Vacations are all about new places, new ideas and new cultures.

But, I must admit to having recently (within the last few years) found another type of vacation that I love just as much: the relaxing-do-nothing-vacation. We did not do these as kids. I’d heard tales of them-people going on cruises where they just lounge by the pool and drink fruity concoctions with umbrellas in them or full-service resort vacations with pools and spas and room service. The first entirely do-nothing vacation I ever took was during the long Chengdu winter of 2013 when we booked a charter flight to the Maldives. For a week, we lived in an over-the-water bungalow with private stairs that emptied right into the ocean. Snorkeling was just merely feet from my bed. A sunburn and several banana shakes later, I was hooked.

This last weekend, we took a second one of these relaxing, do-nothing vacations, this time to Phuket Island, Thailand, as a last-chance outing from the ‘Du. We stayed at a great beach side resort (private beach, two pools, a giant balcony off our king-sized-bed room) where we quickly fell into a leisurely routine. I’d get up first and enjoy the early (well, earlier) morning and then once we were both showered and dressed, we’d get some brunch (I was partial to the waffles and ice cream option on the menu!), and then head back to the room to cool off from the gazillion degree heat and 95% humidity for a bit. By late morning, it was time to go swimming, choosing either “round pool” or “square pool” (hey, you have to have a way to tell you pool options apart!) through the middle of the day. Between swimming and lounging, we’d kill the afternoon. Then, after another round of showers, we’d head into town for dinner and a bit of wandering, getting back to the room in time to go to bed and start the whole mellow process again the next day.

These do-nothing vacations will now be a regular part of my holiday routine. They won’t be the end-all, as I still have a whole lot of world to see: safaris in Nairobi, cathedrals in Istanbul (not Constantinople), koalas in Australia, the Taj Mahal in India, pyramids in Peru, and on and on… But, it is nice to occasionally book a weekend of downtime where nothing more than sipping on pineapple juice, finishing a book (or two) and trying to keep the sunburns to a minimum is expected of me.

Although, a workbook or two by the pool does still hold a certain appeal…

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Flat Hailey Writes Home

Flat Stanley-if you aren’t familiar with this two-dimensional world traveler, grab your car keys and head straight for the nearest bookstore! He may be paper thin, but he’s been all over the globe and back, teaching kids about geography and culture and hopefully inspiring the next generation of backpackers, Peace Corps Volunteers and Foreign Service Officers.

When I was last home in Idaho, a friend gave me her daughter Hailey’s version of Flat Stanley- Flat Hailey. Flat Hailey is a world traveler in her own right and needed to add a few more country stamps to her passport. So, with that in mind, I slipped Flat Hailey into my carry-on luggage and brought her to China for a few months of adventure. Flat Hailey has now been slipped back into an envelope and is headed back to Idaho this week, but below is the letter she wrote to Real Hailey about her adventures, along with some pictures of her journey.

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03/19/13

Dear Hailey,

Thank you for sending me to Asia this winter. It gets very cold in Idaho and I was happy to go somewhere a little warmer for a few months. As much as I like the snow, you have had much too cold of a winter for me. After all, I am only wearing a dress- not exactly a good outfit choice for winter in Idaho. As you know, I love to travel and see new things and in the last few months, I have done a lot of that! Thanks for sending me on a new adventure.

When I left you in late January, I stowed away in Michelle’s carry-on baggage. I have to say, the ride to China was a long one, but luckily, she had lots of fruit snacks and granola bars stashed in her bag, so at least I didn’t get hungry. (I wonder if she noticed all the extra empty wrappers when she cleaned out her bag.)

Upon touching down in China, I was surprised by how many people there are in Chengdu. This place is packed! The city has more than seven million residents, who all seem to be going somewhere all of the time. When I was out exploring, I almost got ran over by a scooter once or twice. Luckily, I quickly learned to look both ways and then both ways again before crossing any street- even at the crosswalk.

For a few days, I went to work at the US Consulate. Sorry there are no pictures of that! I had to lock up my camera each time I visited. But, it was fun to see all of the Chinese people who were hoping to come to America and have their own adventures. I wonder if any of them have “flat” friends.

The number one thing on my list of places to visit in Chengdu was the pandas, and boy did I get to go see them. It was awesome! I went with my new friend Kaiya. Kaiya’s mom and dad work at the US Consulate in Chengdu and she goes to school here. She is four years old and pretty shy, but we had a really good day hanging out together. The little pandas are cute and cuddly, rolling all over and playing, just like kids and puppies do. I really wanted to run up and hug one of them. Maybe next time… The older pandas are pretty lazy. They did not do much while I was visiting. I think most of their days are spent lazing around, eating bamboo and taking naps. Hmmm, now that I think about it, those pandas have a pretty good life! (Although, rather than bamboo, maybe I’d want to eat cupcakes all day.)

In China, I also went to a history museum. At the museum, I learned a lot about how Chinese women used to have their feet wrapped up very tightly to make them tiny. This was called “foot binding.” The many different shoes were very small, but the sewing on them was beautiful. There was a purple pair that I especially liked. I also learned more about the earthquake that happened in China in 2008. I got to meet a pig who survived being buried under rubble for six weeks. Because he didn’t have food to eat when he was trapped, he ate coal. I think that would be a terrible dinner! Again, cupcakes would be much tastier! Now he lives at the museum and is very fat. The museum must feed him anything he wants because he is gigantic.

Chinese New Year also happened while I was visiting Sichuan. Instead of celebrating the arrival of the New Year on January 1st like we do in the United States, the Chinese celebrated it in February. This year is the year of the snake! To ring in the New Year, the whole city lit up with fireworks. I have never seen anything like it, not even on the 4th of July in America!

I didn’t spend my whole three months of traveling just in China though. During the Chinese New Year holiday (they take a week off of work), I flew to the Maldives, which is a country made up of tiny islands in the Indian Ocean. It was beautiful!  You know how much I like sunshine and this was the perfect vacation from my Chinese travels. I got to stay in a hut over the water where I could watch fish all day long!  I spent some of my time snorkeling, seeing puffer fish, rainbow fish, trumpet fish, starfish, sharks and so many more things I can’t list them all. Each day when I got back from swimming, I hung on the clothes line with the bathing suits so I could dry out before dinner.  I also spent time relaxing in the sun, getting a bit of a tan (and maybe a little sunburn too) as I sprawled out on a chair and read lots of books. I’m particularly partial to the Flat Stanley series. I think we have a lot in common.

It has been a very good few months of traveling, but now I am super excited to be home and share all of my photographs with you, Hailey.  Thank you for letting me go on such a great adventure. I can’t wait to find out where you will take me next! I am emailing you this letter now, as I am going to hop into an envelope and start my journey home tomorrow. It will probably take me two or three weeks to make it back to your house, but I can’t wait to see you again. Look for me in your mailbox!

Love,

Flat Hailey

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I May Become a Real Snorkeler Yet!

Growing up, my house was full of books, magazines and newspapers. I was surrounded by letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, pages, chapters and novels. Every opportunity to be an early reader was presented to me, but did I go for it? Nope. Why not? Because I also came from a house of teachers and I knew what their job was. It was to teach kids, at a school. So, why learn to read on my own when it was the teacher’s job to pass that information along? I figured just like it was Mr. Roger’s job to take me to the crayon and toilet bowl-making factories and it was the mailman’s job to deliver music catalogs filled with buy 8, get one free deals (plus a million of those postage stamp-like stickers of all of the cassette tapes available that I could lick and stick to everything in the house), it was my first grade teacher’s job to teach me to read. With this idea firmly planted in my head, my mom tied my shoes (I was a bit behind the curve on shoe-tying it would seem and Velcro had not yet hit the shoe scene), packed my Tupperware bowl of Lucky Charms in my Sesame Street lunchbox and delivered me to my first day at Van Buren Elementary School. Eight hours later, with straggling shoelaces, a milk-film lined plastic container nestled next to my Big Bird thermos, I walked out the side door of that same building literate. (Okay, literate in a first grade sense.) Yes, it took just one day for me to go from being a non-reader to a reader. Apparently, I had more book sense that I had let on, but I wasn’t going to show it until the teacher had done her job. (Someone give that woman a raise!)

Jump ahead two decades.

After years of half-hearted attempts to learn to drive a manual transmission vehicle, I was in my early twenties and still couldn’t get my husband’s truck out of the driveway if there had been an emergency. Driving the back roads around Marsing, I could eventually jerk the truck into first gear, get it moving and finally find some rhythm as I shifted upwards to normal driving speeds. That was all well and good when it was just some coyotes and pheasants as spectators, but add in even a single other car and my little bit of stick-shift confidence went flying out the window of the stalled pickup. I’d basically given up ever driving a manual vehicle anywhere witness-able by human beings, when, in the market for a new car, I fell in love with one of the new VW Beetles. (I guess that dates me a bit, as the “new” Beetles have since had yet another make-over!) With no skills to speak of, I bought a stick shift car, which I couldn’t drive home the twenty freeway miles to my house. Since we had gone car shopping in Thad’s stick shift truck, he couldn’t take the new car home either. With the pile of car sale papers adding up and my hand cramping from signing and initialing every detail known to man, I made a call to my sister, who drove an automatic, but could drive a manual, to come pick up my new car and deliver it to my house, with me following her in her car. With my shiny black Beetle safely in the driveway of my house, I had forced myself into a situation where I HAD to learn to drive it- for real. The next day, out I headed, across town to the court house for my license and registration, only killing the engine at every stop sign and railroad crossing, embarrassingly waving “so sorry” waves to the line of cars building behind me at each intersection and painfully lurching into parking spaces as I ran my new-car errands. But, by the time Thad got home from work that night, I was a near-master of the stick-shift. (Well, of my car’s stick-shift. It didn’t take me long to discover that his truck, the one I had frustratingly been learning on in fits and starts over the last few years, was one of the most persnickety transmissions I’d ever drive.)

And now jump ahead one more decade.

This last week was the Chinese New Year (happy year of the snake!), which means the Consulate was closed and it was time to get a little sunshine. For years I’ve seen pictures on the internet of huts perched on stilts above gorgeous, clear, blue seas. A little research said that many of these rooms could be found in the Maldives, and a bit more hunting turned up a direct flight from Chengdu to Male, meaning pollution-free skies, equatorial sunshine, silky soft sand beaches and a rainbow of tropical fish were a mere six hours away. There was only one problem with that plan though- I can’t swim. (Okay, two problems, the second being that I am pasty white and genetically am never meant to live anywhere near the Equator, but that is a dilemma for another day…maybe bidding day.)

On a secluded island, fifty miles from the capital city and only reachable by seaplane, snorkeling is one of the top holiday activities. But, as I said, I am no swimmer. Bless their hearts, my parents did their duty in this realm. They enrolled me in summer after summer of Caldwell Recreation’s swim classes at the public pool. With three kids and an always full summer schedule, we were always enrolled in the first course of the summer, starting in early June, and the first classes of the day. While this made sense from a parental-point of view, I have to say that for a reluctant swimmer, facing that early morning, not yet sun-warmed pool was no easy task. But, summer after summer I went to those classes for a few weeks and summer after summer I hated putting my head under the water, I hated jumping off the diving board and I hated flailing around in a pool that I’m pretty sure had more “p” than “ool.” When it was clear I wasn’t making much headway in the skills department, my parents took me to private lessons. This was better, in that it was in the afternoons and in a private backyard pool, and I am sure I made more progress in that summer than I did in my multitude of public sessions, but still, floating is the only water skill I really possess. In case of a water emergency, my plan has always been to float on my back or doggy paddle until help arrives. I think it is a solid plan.

But, when faced with a week-long vacation on the above mentioned tropical island, I figured it was probably time to pull out that stubborn streak that was the impetus behind waiting until day one of first grade to read or purchasing a car I couldn’t actually drive to force me in to learning how to operate a manual transmission. Armed with flippers, goggles and a snorkel and a bungalow with a private staircase leading directly into the sea, it was time to swim.

I would like to claim that I bailed into the water, swam with the fishes (in a good way!) and could now be mistaken for a big white fish, but my first attempt at snorkeling was not quite that smooth. With Thad as my personal lifeguard, I flipper-ed and masked up and painstakingly crawled down to the ocean, step by step. Once I had eased into the water, I clung to the railing like a barnacle, sure I was going to be swept out to sea and never seen again. (All this before my hair was even wet!) Getting comfortable with the lack of touchable bottom, I put my goggled head under the water, only to instantly hyperventilate. While my brain logically knew air was coming through the tube that broke the surface, my lungs freaked out and I was pretty sure I was going to die, while still in barnacle-mode.

Slowly, but surely, over the next hour, I ventured away from my railing, floundering from hut to hut like someone who was raised far from any ocean. (Southern Idaho anyone?) As my confidence grew, we were able to eventually leave behind the security of the railings and head out into the coral, visiting fish in their own homes. It was a bit surreal, being inside the world’s biggest aquarium! As I pulled myself waterlogged and sunburned self back up onto the deck of our bungalow (avoiding the two crabs who lived there all week as well), I wouldn’t claim myself to be a snorkeling champion but I was comfortable and confident and ready to not only see new parts of the reef around our island, but I was already pondering possible snorkeling destinations for our next R&R.

Some may call it stubbornness or pigheadedness, but I’d rather put a positive spin on it and say that once I set my mind to something, I’ll make it happen. That might mean making sure my first grade teacher gets a chance to do her job properly or that I don’t learn to drive a stick-shift until it becomes necessary for the car I want, but once I see the purpose in learning something new, I’m all over it, just like those clingy barnacles!

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Ringing in the Year of the Snake with Far from the Fireworks

All my bags are packed, I’m ready to go.

Thankfully, my bags aren’t filled with the regret and longing of John Denver’s. Rather, my packing list included much lighter items, like three swimsuits (a girl needs choices when she is willingly-marooned on a minuscule island, soaking up sunshine after a dreary Chengdu winter!) and an array of sundresses that haven’t been out of the closet in nearly a year.

Now, as I gingerly type this post with drying nails (hot pink sandal-worthy toes and glittery, UV-activated red polish on my 8/10 fingers), I can almost feel the sunshine soaking into my skin (I’m already prepared for the possibility of nursing a sunburn the following week, but it is a price I am willing to pay), smell the salty breeze wafting off the ocean, taste the fruity, umbrella bedecked drinks and picture the turtles and manta rays swimming beneath my stilted hut.

Maldives, I’m ready for you!

I’ve got new books downloaded to my Nook and several magazines that I stashed away for this occasion while I was home in the States. (I downloaded this year’s Newberry award-winning book, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate a few days ago, meaning to take it with me and read while lounging on my private deck, but made the mistake of starting it last night. Needless to say, I couldn’t put it down and ended up finishing it this morning, before packing commenced. READ IT! I don’t have time to write a review before heading out tomorrow, but this book is beautiful and should be read by all, young and old. Trust me.)

Bathing suits- check. Sundresses-check. Sunscreen-check. Reading materials-check. Now, it is just a matter of watching the clock slowly tick down the next twenty-four hours.

Needless to say, I will be totally (and contentedly) unplugged from the virtual world for the next week, so there will be no blog posts or Facebook updates.  Until then, I leave you with this mental image of my time on a tiny island in the Indian Ocean :

beach

(I found this picture online last month and saved it. I wish I had had the foresight to take note of the site where I stumbled across it. It is citation-less and this English teacher feels terrible about it!)