Saturday, June 18, 2011

Gee It's Good to be Back Home Again

I'm back home form the first time in 29 days. I've gone all the way around the world!

Kona has a very petty, outdoor airport. There are tropical green plantings, and statues of Hawaiian dancers. The waiting area reminds me of a hotel or a shopping center courtyard. I heard they might get rid of the open-air gates and build a "real" airport with jetways, though :( After the usual boarding rituals, I settled in for the final flight of my odyssey. I arrived back at SFO at sunset. I feel like a new part of my life is beginning.

Travel Statistics:

  • Geopolitical Entities == Northern Ireland, England, Japan, Oahu, Hawai'i (the Big Island)
  • Miles Flown == ~20,311
  • Fight Segments == 12
  • Airlines Flown == United, Continental, Jet2.com, Lufthansa, ANA, Hawaiian
  • Hotels == Radisson Blu, Coast Apartments, Beach House Tower, Ilikai
  • Loads of Laundry == 2
  • Favorite Alcoholic Beverage == Mai Tai

Friday, June 17, 2011

That's All, Ears

When I woke up this morning I knew my ears not good. I don't have any pain right now, but I can tell they're blocked. No more diving for me this week. We're moored in a spot that is supposed to have a lot of sea turtles. I love sea turtles--but fortunately I have an *amazing* sea turtle dive in my memories so I don't really feel sad about missing out.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Solace of the Sea

Woke up with my right ear not so great today. I applied Advil and ear drops, and hoped it would feel less achey so I could dive in the afternoon. I pushed things yesterday so I could see the manta rays, so needed to take it easy this morning. Now that I'm not distracted by the amazing underwater world, I suddenly feel like crap both emotionally and physically.

After lunch I went diving. I saw a mid-sized free-swimming eel, a huge moray under a rock, a rare kind of box fish, and generally had a pleasant time. I love being in the water, and find when I'm down there it's a form of meditation. I've tried sitting meditation, and even took classes, but it's just not for me. Diving, however, is different. You have to be in the moment and mindful of what's around you or else (at the least) you'll miss seeing great things or (at the most) you could die. The hour I spend under water is all about being present. It's calming, makes me tired, and gives me lovely dreams. I've been dreaming vividly about diving all week, so much so that I feel like I've made more dives than I really have.

One of the dive masters, Brandi, is a marine biologist and a great underwater photographer. She teaches a course on board about native Hawaiian species. We basically talk about fish, dive and look at fish, and then get out of the water and talk about fish some more. I heard about a dive master game where people try to trump each other with certification cards: whoever doesn't have a certain card has to buy everyone a drink. I decided to take Brandi's "Hawaiian Naturalist" course because it's only taught by her on the Kona Aggressor, which means I'll always have a winning card in my pocket :)

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Manta Rave!

My ear was a little wonky this morning so I sat out the first dive. I wanted to make sure I could make it to tonight's dive, the famous manta ray night dive. After some Advil and Sudafed I felt much better, and when I tried diving the ear seemed good. We have been making our way north along the west coast of the big island of Hawai'i, and are nearly back to our starting point in Kona. Currently we are moored in front of the Sheraton hotel, site of tonight's dive.

The hotel has a patio bar overlooking the water, and many many years ago people realized that the lights from the patio attracted creatures to the area to feed at night. The lights bring the plankton closer to the surface, and the easily caught plankton attracts manta rays. It's become quite the attraction: boats full of divers show up, and the divers sit on the sandy bottom pointing lights up toward the surface. A couple of dive boats bring bins full of lights, making a sort of campfire in the middle. Snorkelers float above, holding on to rafts with more lights pointing down. The mantas come and feed off the plankton that gathers between all these lights. The mantas can start gathering in the late afternoon, and although sometimes they don't show up, sometimes there can be several dozen feeding in the lights.

Our afternoon dive was where the lights would be later, and sure enough we saw three mantas. They were just cruising around, and we were able to follow them from a distance. On my safety stop, one manta slowly swam back and forth at the same depth as me. I watched him while he watched me. These rays are so beautiful, graceful, and peaceful. They have huge mouths, but they only eat plankton which they catch by filtering. The weird fins on their head help to channel the plankton toward their mouth.

Finally it was time for the highlight of the day! I was a bit nervous because I didn't know what to expect. We jumped in and started swimming toward the light campfire, and when we arrived there were already rays turning loop-the-loops to feed. It was visually fantastic, like a rave! A manta rave! Really, there were glowsticks, a light show, and breathing of compressed gasses. A half-dozen feeding manta rays, swooped about overhead. One swam continuous loop-de-loops for a few minutes. Several passed by inches from my head.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Back from the South

We're back from South Point. The captain told us that the winds and currents had been such that they hadn't been able to get down there for a few weeks. The sites down there were very interesting from a geological standpoint, as it is the endpoint for many old lava flows. We swam in, around, and under arches, through lava tubes, and past twisty rock formations. There isn't much coral down here, but I've been having fun looking in nooks and crannies for animals and testing my swimming and buoyancy skills. The hot lava from Kilauea is miles away, so no worries about that.

On one dive I encountered the most beautiful crabs. They were about 4" across, gorgeous, brightly multi-colored, and scuttled away when I shined my light on them. Remember the Scintillating Jeweled Scuttling Crabs from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy? These were just how I imagined them!

Scuba makes me ravenous. Partly from thermal-loss calorie burn, partly from seeing shrimp, lobster, snapper, and other delicious critters. The food has been pleasant, very homey. After dinner we often hang out as a group in the salon, looking at photos taken during the day. There's a huge bowl full of chocolate on the coffee table, which mysteriously refills itself each night. We've taken to calling it the miraculous chocolate bowl.

After dinner we had a nice night dive. Night dives used to freak me out, but tonight was fun! Saw MASSIVELY HUGE LOBSTERS, slipper lobsters, shrimp, nudibranchs, a "gumdrop," two Spanish Dancers (they look like oversized nudibranchs), a snake eel, several eels, and generally just enjoyed swimming around.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Eat, Sleep, Dive

What a schedule: dive before breakfast, breakfast, dive before lunch, lunch, dive before snack, dive, dive before dinner, dinner. There's a night dive to cap off the day, then it's time for sleep and the cycle repeats itself. I'm diving in a new wet suit, and am getting used to wiggling into it and peeling it off again. So far I've seen lots of pretty reef fish, and am so hungry I could eat the huge lobster I saw on the third dive today. The other women on the boat are nice, and not having a dive buddy hasn't been a problem. Sometimes I dive with one of the other women, and sometimes with the dive guide. It hasn't been a big deal. Diving here in Hawaii is a lot more relaxing than it was in Okinawa, partly because the weather is better this week. Tomorrow we are heading to South Point, the southernmost dive site in the US.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

I'm on a BOAT!

Flew down to Kona on Hawaiian Airlines today. I have to admit that their check-in process confused me: they make you weigh and tag your own luggage. I got it figured out and got mistaken for a college student on the quick flight. I am old enough to have a college student child, so I guess my heavy cares are starting to drop away. It took me a while to find the Aggressor agent on arrival in Kona, but eventually we met up. He loaded my bags into their van and drove me into the cute old part of town. They were turning the boat around from the previous week's trip, so I had some lunch and strolled around looking for shave ice. I had a pedicure at a tiny nail salon along the waterfront while dolphins frolicked in the cove outside the the salon's back window.

After what seemed like forever, I was finally able to get on the boat. This is the first live-aboard dive trip I've taken. I'm looking forward to a lot of diving, but don't really know what to expect. Will the people be nice? Will it be a problem that I don't have a dive buddy? Will the food be ok? Will my bunk be comfortable? Who will my roommate be? I was excited and a bit anxious. The boat itself is quite nice, and I learned that I am the lucky odd woman out so I get my own cabin for the week. I like it: it's high enough above the water that it has a real screened window that opens, and a tiny attached bathroom. The lower bunk is like a double bed, and there are plenty of electrical outlets. Diving happens off the back deck, and each person has a little locker to keep their small gear in. Wet suits get hung up above the locker, and the tank/BC fits in a rack behind the locker. It's all so convenient!

The other guests this week are all women. There's someone from New York, someone from Brazil, and a group of women from the St. Louis area. The crew is all male except for one instructor/photographer. The chef this week is a newbie, basically auditioning for the job. We got our welcome aboard orientation, and the boat headed out away from the pier. Dinner is decent, and since most people are jet lagged things got very quiet and we all went to bed shortly thereafter. I didn't end up sleeping well, I was suffering from bad-relationship-flashback agony. I've not talked about it here, but I've recently gotten out of a really bad marriage. The night I passed that kidney stone in Honolulu was supposed to be our first anniversary. I had to end the relationship because my husband had been abusing me. I keep having flashbacks to things he said or did, I hate that these memories keep coming up and feel like my mind has been poisoned. I've been up for hours trying to remain calm but it's not really working. I'll try a dive after breakfast and see if looking at pretty fish while breathing enriched air helps.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Aloha Waikiki

Last night I slept for 18 hours. Although I woke up sleepy and afraid of sunburn, I felt like I "should" go climb Diamond Head. I took DaBus (city bus) over, and discovered that it's a hike just to get from the main road to the visitors' center in the crater. The Waikiki Trolley goes directly to the visitors' center, though, so I was able to save myself some walking in the afternoon and took that back to the hotel.

Anyway, that hike up Diamond Head is a doozy. It starts out with a paved footpath, which gives way to dirt and gravel, and eventually turns into a mule track capped off by sets of stairs tunneling through the rock. I emerged in a concrete bunker on rim of the extinct caldera, then clambered through a window. The reward is cool breezes and an iconic view of Waikiki. My timing was lucky because as I looked out over the Pacific, the aircraft carrier Carl Vinson was heading east to San Diego. I chatted with a kid from Texas who proposed that we build a water slide along the inside of the crater to save us the hike back down.

I ended my day, and my stay in Waikiki, by snacking on Lilo & Stitch-branded Hawaiian Host chocolate-covered macadamia nuts from the ABC Store, while watching "Lilo & Stitch." After sunset there were fireworks next door at the Hilton Hawaiian Village (every Friday night at 7:45).

Ah dear Waikiki How I have come to love thee.

What a Day!

Last night at 2am I rushed to the ER due to a kidney stone. And this morning at 9am I went surfing. I rode a 6' wave! Well,  it was only 3' the way the Hawaiians count it, BUT STILL! My instructor, from Girls Who Surf, was a PhD student in Marine Biology at the University of Hawaii. He took me to the same break off Ala Wai that I could see from my hotel room's lanai. I didn't have any problem getting up, and once I was up it was pretty easy for me to balance and ride on the wave. It was really fun and I'm looking forward to doing it again. The most amazing thing is the sound of the water. Usually when you're playing in the water you hear the swooshing sound of a wave pass by you: swish swooosh then quiet, then another wave comes with its own swishing sand swooshing. When you surf, you stay with the wave, so the sound is constant! We also saw a monk seal chilling on the beach. Monk seals are endangered and shy, so it was pretty much a miracle that one was there at Ala Mona. I'm taking it as a good omen.

After surfing I was tired from being up half the night, and settled down for a nap. I started feeling the beginnings of pain in that kidney again, so I took a bunch of Motrin and drank a lot of water. Not too much later the stone came out. Too bad I took all that Motrin--I can't have a drink to celebrate until that's worked through my system. Also, I didn't put enough sunblock on, and appear to have crisp-fried the backsides of my legs at my surfing lesson, so I guess the Motrin is also helping with that.

Evenings at The Ilikai begin with a man in red and gold Hawaiian robe blowing a conch shell while tiki torches are lit. Lovely.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Pearl Harbor

After spending a week in the water off Okinawa, I wanted to stay dry so I headed out to Pearl Harbor to visit the Arizona Memorial. On the advice of the hotel's concierge, I booked an early morning bus tour. Entrance to the memorial is by timed ticket only, and tickets are handed out first-come/first served. The tour bus companies send people down there right when the center opens so that their clients don't have to wait around all day to get out to the Arizona. It sounds like a bit of a scam, but is worth it on a long hot day.

I really got a lot out of the museum, as you walk through it traces what is going on in the US on one side, and what is happening in Japan on the other. It gives a lot of historical and cultural context to that part of World War II--not in the sense of what general was doing what when, but rather about daily life in Japan as it it was changing from a feudal agrarian society to a modern more urban one, and about Hawaii under basically martial law.

Before boarding the launch to the memorial they showed a film describing the attack, including footage from survivors. Then we motored out to the memorial itself, where people looked around and quietly digested everything they had just learned. There is a lot to see in the area, including the battleship Missouri and Bowfin submarine, but I didn't want to spend the whole day so I headed back to Waikiki to do my laundry. While I was waiting for it to dry I watched outrigger racing canoes practicing on the Ala Wai Canal, and surfers on the break just off the Marina. I think I am coming to like Waikiki a lot--it's not just a shopping mall with a beach.

After a couple of Mai Tais and some appetizers at Sarento's at the Top of the Ilikai, I went to bed early and relaxed with a book. I'm still jet-lagged from Okinawa, and I fell asleep with the lights on...and then woke up after midnight feeling like someone was ripping my right leg out of its socket from the inside. It was so painful that the instant the pain let up and I could breathe, I fell asleep again, only to be jolted awake again around 2am writhing in the worst pain I've ever experienced. I called the front desk, got a taxi, and headed to the emergency room. Turns out I have kidney stones. They gave me an IV of fluids, pain meds, and anti-nausea meds, plus took a CT scan of the affected area. Once all the drugs kicked in the doctor explained how passing the stone would work, and sent me to an all-night Walgreens to get prescription-strength Motrin and anti-nausea meds. I got back to my room early enough that I could catch a few hours of sleep before going to my first-ever surfing lesson. I had been thinking about trying surfing for a long time and did NOT want to miss it!

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Hawaii Five-Oh!

My next stop after Okinawa is Hawaii! I'm catching the Kona Aggressor in a few days, so am killing the in-between time in Waikiki. I've only ever been here before for ballroom dancing competitions, and didn't particularly like it, but I thought I might as well go again for pure relaxation and give it another chance. There are zillions of hotels and I was having a difficult time deciding where to stay until I found out that the helicopter scene in the opening credits to "Hawaii Five-0" was filmed at The Ilikai. I'm strangely caught up in that show, not because it's great TV, but because I'm transfixed by the beauty shots of Hawaii.

After traveling all day and all night from Okinawa, I arrived in Honolulu the morning of the same day I left Japan. Thank you, International Date Line! I couldn't check in until the afternoon, so I walked over to the huge Ala Moana Center mall for some shopping and lunch. Once I got into my room I was very happy with my choice: it's huge, and looks out over Ala Moana Park, the marina, and the ocean. I'll go to sleep tonight with the a/c off and the lanai doors wide open so I can hear the ever-rolling waves.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Singing Pineapples not Under the Sea

We spent the day on a Japanese tour bus with a non-English speaking guide. At several points the guide and the Japanese guests broke into song. We have no idea why. There was a lot of driving and singing, and we ended up at a butterfly farm. After yet more driving and singing, we got to Okinawa's amazing aquarium where we saw three whale sharks. Yes, whale sharks. There were also rays, and manatees.

For some reason Stitch (of the super Disney movie, "Lilo and Stitch") is popular in Okinawa. I bought a Stitch Okinawan bath bomb, a phone frob of Stitch riding a whale shark, and a rather psychedelic Stitch post card. On the way home we stopped at some fruit palace/wine making place where we could learn the history of wine making in Okinawa and sample the vintages. I'm pretty sure that there was a singing pineapple somewhere, and that it wasn't just the incredibly sweet fruit wines.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Pit Viper Sake and a Cure for Jet Lag

Everywhere we dive has shown some sort of damage or disturbance from the typhoons this season. We came across a young green turtle who was violently munching on coral. He had probably been blown off the reef in the storm and was just getting back home, and was obviously starving. The reef in his area was mostly elk horn coral, and looked as if it had been run over with a lawn mower. The storm surge was so powerful that car-sized boulders rolled around under water. I had never really considered what kind of devastation happens under water during a major cyclonic storm, and am stunned by the waste laid to some of these reefs. Dive master Doug tells us that before the most recent storm these sites were vigorous and healthy. I'm now concerned that climate-change enhanced storms will destroy all the coral reefs in the Caribbean.

It's not all bad, though. On our final day in the water we had some awesome dives in areas that had been in the lee of the storm. There were huge coral formations teeming with fish, eels, an octopus, and gemstone-like nudibranchs. I got over my clown fish bite but still carefully harass them from time to time. The weather has become sunny, and it appears that a couple of days of three-tank dives on 33% oxygen-enriched air is a GREAT cure for jet lag.

We went out to dinner with the dive masters tonight, to one of those Brazilian beef places where they just keep giving you meat until you cry. It was my first time. ProTip: Don't eat the salad, it's just there to fill you up so you don't eat all the beef! Afterwards we stopped at the hotel's bar for an Okinawan specialty: sake with a pit viper drowned in it. The venom is supposed to be a bit of a hallucinogen. It tasted weird, like bad bananas and Everclear. I didn't hallucinate but I am drunk! Thank the Universe for good friends, good diving, and good weather.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Clown Fish are Not Funny

Dive masters, not just in Japan, have a habit of harassing wildlife -- even though we're taught to never touch or disturb anything. I have seen dive masters try to get octopuses out of holes, or clown fish to leave anemones. I think clown fish are completely grumpy, and started using the dive master trick of wiggling my finger to get it to swim out of its anemone. I found it hilarious, and then I got bitten by one of the little buggers. Lesson learned.

Tonight we went out for sushi to a place recommended by the dive masters. The people working there didn't speak much English, and we don't speak any Japanese, but we have an iPhone app that lists different sushis in both languages. It shows what is in season, and we used it to pick interesting things. The chef was really in to it, we'd point to something and ask about it, and either he'd have it or he'd get excited that we had asked and then apologize that there wasn't any that day. Once they realized that we weren't just California-roll eating gaijin we got some great stuff. I can't even remember it all, but I've developed a new appreciation for mackerel, both saba and aji, tonight.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Okinawa Diving

We're diving with an operation owned by an American guy, ex-Special Ops, who has been living in Okinawa for decades. Although we're on an island, the dive sites are off smaller islands about an hour or two by boat from Chatan. While I don't mind being on a boat at all, one of my dive buddies gets sea sick very easily. During one of our surface intervals he yuked up breakfast and lunch, attracting a hoard of fish. Not wanting to pass up a chance to see colorful critters, I grabbed my snorkel and jumped in. Once his stomach was empty, he was good to keep diving. We competed three dives and saw a fish feeding frenzy and a couple of sleeping sharks. The water clarity is not so great and parts of the reef are beaten up from the typhoon that passed through just before we arrived in Japan.

Part of the fun of traveling to a new place is trying the local snacks. After our first day of diving, we went to a local supermarket where I picked up an Okinawan pastry that was basically the outer covering of a fig newton filled with a slightly smoky-tasting purple yam filling. I should have taken a picture of it before consuming. It was...okay. The purple yam is native to Okinawa and very popular here, it even comes as a special KitKat flavor! I also tried small crunchy waffle cookie fish filled with Aero chocolate. I'm not sure why chocolate filled with air bubbles is so popular here, but this treat tasted great.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

No Sleep Till Naha

My gear and I made it all the way to Nagoya, in central Japan. I got stuck in Frankfurt for a few hours because there were extremely high crosswinds blowing at the airport. I was really worried that they would cancel our flight, but a short lull opened a window and since we were loaded up and just sitting on the tarmac waiting to go, we got up and went. I knew I was going to miss my connection between Lufthansa and ANA at Nagoya, and tried not to worry too much about it. I had ponied up for business class for precisely this reason: the airlines tend to take decent care of the premium cabin passengers. Sure enough when I got off the plane in Nagoya I was met at the gate by an ANA agent carrying a sign with my name. She explained to me that I had been rebooked on a later flight to Naha, and gave me a form printed in both Japanese and English that outlined the changes. I had to exit security, collect my bags, and then check in with ANA. I presented the form, and everything was taken care of.  Interestingly enough, they scan the bags right by the check-in line, and I was made to remove all the batteries from my dive lights.  Soon enough I was sitting at my gate waiting to board for Okinawa. I hadn't really slept on the flight from Frankfurt because I was worried about making the connection, and because I was feeling sore and crampy from Lufthansa's angled lay-flay seats. I didn't realize how awful these things are, a friend calls them "Frankenstein slabs" because while the surface is flat, the whole seat in "bed" mode tilts at an angle. I kept sliding down and couldn't fall asleep.

The flight from Nagoya to Naha was full of Japanese school girls. Yes, there was lots of giggling. Once I arrived in Naha I found the shuttle bus that was to make the hour+ drive to my final destination of Chatan, near Kadena (a major American military installation). It was dark and cloudy, a typhoon had recently passed through and the weather was unsettled. The bus driver was listening to Japanese talk radio, and in my over-tired state I started hallucinating that I could actually understand Japanese. The area around Naha is very urban, and as we headed south toward Chatan it stayed urban. Even my "resort" was in an urban area. Imagine if Oakland had a beach resort: that is what it is like at the Beach Tower in Chatan. Looking out I see cargo ships, cranes, fuel tanks, and piers.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

The Long Way Around

After watching all this fabulous dancing, it's time for me to make a major shift in gears. I'm leaving this morning to meet up with my Geek Divers posse in Okinawa. Two of them have some business in Japan, and two others are visiting in friends in Hong Kong, so we decided a while ago that we'd converge on Japan's tropical paradise. Since I'm already in England, I have to travel a long way. Today I'm flying Manchester-Frankfurt-Nagoya-Okinawa. Don't even ask me how many hours this is going to take. I just hope my gear makes it all the way!