Southeast Asia, Part II: The Ways (and Woes) of the Ocean.

I begin Part II in a weird little hotel on the other side of the water, having just spent the past 6 days on a boat in the Mergui (Myeik) Archipelago, dodging currents and battling low visibility, diving some of the most lush underwater gardens I’ve seen in years.

I’m in Kawthaung, Myanmar’s southernmost point, and my official point of entry to this country.

First, the undersea world.

Diving is a strange contradiction, as well as an ethical paradox. To get to the places that have not been impacted (as much) by climate change and unchecked tourism and the unsustainable overconsumption to which this world has become addicted, one needs to travel further and further abroad, which requires planes, trains, buses, boats, etc. to get one there.

I’m convinced that the more people who discover diving will have their eyes opened to the pervasive problems the foundation of our ecosystem faces. I’ve diatribed on this before: without healthy oceans, we do not have a healthy planet. And one cannot get the true picture of what a healthy ocean looks like unless one sees the contrast.

I dove in Thailand 3 years ago and nearly cried each day I saw dead reefs, bleached and crushed corals, and a distinct lack of fish, with the exception of one dive site, Richelieu Rock, situated a difficult-enough distance from the mainland to not have the daily touristic pounding that is seen in the rest of the Similan Islands (shortly after we were there, Thailand’s government actually closed Koh Tachai because it had gotten so bad). Same observations last year in The Seychelles, where it’s clear that their reefs have not bounced back from a devastating bleaching event the year prior. The oceans are too warm. The landscape appears normal at the surface (for a given value of normal), yet scratch the idyllic surface and you quickly see there’s trouble lurking.

Enter, Myanmar: I wanted to give this part of the world another shot, and with 3 weeks in Southeast Asia planned and not much of an itinerary, I decided to add some diving days to see how the ocean is doing.

First off, it is difficult to get to the Mergui Archipelago. Situated quite a ways offshore from nearly anywhere, there is virtually no diving industry here, as one must get on a liveaboard to hit most of the charted sites. This bodes well for the reef, because the lack of frequent day-tripping snorkel and dive boats means that hordes of tourists won’t be tromping on the corals, nor should their fuel or trash. I’ll get back to the trash later.

Optimistic indication #2: the distance from any coastal building boom (if there were one here) means that toxins from industry and development running into the reefs isn’t yet being exacerbated by the depletion of mangroves and natural boundaries. Yet being the operative word.

Massively strong currents and wild thermocline are natural in this region (5-10° fluctuations in ocean temperature weren’t at all uncommon), as is the less-than-optimal visibility. These factors, too, make this a “not for everyone” diving destination. And these wild waters help nature do its thing: creating sea-creature superhighways to move critters and nutrients and food sources, cleansing the habitats in the process.

So we begin with a habitat that is less intruded-upon than most. Yet, our first night, anchored off an island some 6 hours northwest of Kawthaung, we’re shocked to see a horizon ablaze with fishing boats. These local commercial fishermen are trolling with massive nets that drag along the bottom of the ocean, collecting squid plus whatever bycatch happens into the fray. It’s a disconcerting sight to say the least.

By day, dive after dive, we visit reefs are teeming with schools of fish and soft corals, creating dream-like undersea forests in pinks and yellows I’ve never before experienced.

And dive after dive, I’m also wondering where the bigger stuff is. The reef sharks and mantas and dolphins and turtles and rays and whale sharks that should be flourishing in these waters, amongst these healthy reefs, given all the lower little stuff on offer for them…

Pay attention to the damselfish and how he’s harassing the poor octo!

So one afternoon, we take the zodiac out to one of the little islands; an idyllic uninhabited gem plonked in the middle of the ocean. As we land, a siren of sorts is sounding… turns out it’s some sort of beach insect that emits a wail akin to a fire signal, so loud, that as we walk to the jungle at the edge of the beach, it hurts the ears. And I get a lump in my throat realising that it is an alarm…the natural world is in a massive amount of trouble. Here, in the middle of the sea, where nobody lives, is a carpet of plastic trash.

Back on the dive boat, as we get to islands closer to civilisation again, we begin to see the impacts of the fishermen, a warming climate and more people: damaged, bleached and dead corals, dive sites strewn with “ghost nets” and stray lines and hooks, increasingly fewer, and noticeably smaller, schools of fish… the plastic-littered beach nearly broke my heart, yet an hour or a day or a month of cleanup won’t help the endemic worldwide consumption at its root.

I’m running this all over in my mind and I’m wondering when the breaking point will be for this place as well. Nature needs the balance of top predators and small; the plastic will choke the beaches and eventually the sea birds, then the small fish that feed the medium that feed the bigger ones…and the food chain needs its balance to remain intact.

Lest we forget: we, too, are of the animal kingdom and simultaneously the worst perpetrators of the misdeeds to it.

On this dive boat, we were all given water bottles instead of plastic; they used real plates and cutlery; we cut fishing lines and hooks from the reef; they reported our findings to the authorities… it’s a small dent in a massive problem to which I don’t have a solution. But I think conscious consumption and responsible travel and deliberate choices and intelligent conversations are all imperative places to start.

With these thoughts mulling in my head, we head back to dry land. For me, it’s another 10 days of new experiences in a land I know very little about. The boat drops me where I started this piece, in the town of Kauthaung (pronounced something like cow-tongue), and from here I will travel northwards.


Read more of these adventures in Southeast Asia: [Part I: Bangkok] [Part III: Back on Land] [Part IV: Yangon] [Part V: Inle Lake]

Seychelles, Part II: Into the (semi) deep, a climb, surrender, and the reward

[Seychelles: Part I] [Seychelles: Part III]

This morning, we load up the bikes with dive gear and the day’s necessities and point ourselves towards the dive shop. The sky shines a vivid, almost musical blue, and the sea competes with an azure rainbow; variegated cyan delineating reef from sand.

20180501_135055-1We had seen the rocky mound of an island from land, its sole palm reaching for the sky as if trying to escape Poseidon’s wrath. Ave Maria, it’s called; there’s no use attempting to mix metaphors here. This is our first dive site.

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The Seychelles’ reef system has suffered much the same fate as others in this ocean: a bleaching event a couple of years ago and a subsequent coral die-off, which leaves me sad but not surprised that the vibrancy isn’t as I’d hoped. It seems to be trying to come back, though, and the fish are here to stay. We see a few green sea turtles, and some decent-sized schools of fish; moray eels, humphead wrasse, unicornfish, triggerfish, butterflyfish and puffers; octopi, cowfish, un petit requin (black tip), moorish idols, and that silly-looking yellow and black one with stripes and spots whose name I’ve forgotten…we’re even graced with the appearance of the elusive pipefish. Clownfish are few, alas, as there are few anemones in which they live. But we tally 5 adventure points for the dives, including C’s earned by fending off a rogue sea urchin. This mermaid’s fins are sated for now.

Back on land…

As if the day’s humidity weren’t enough to sap one’s strength, we decide to ride our (15ish kilo) bikes up the island’s highest hill to take in the view at Nid d’Aigle. The road winds its way up, the hills at a 45° angle to the rest of the world; the humidity rivalling the consistency of, say, lobster bisque. Biking gives way to pushing said (leaden) bikes, which eventually leads to surrendering to the elements (we are, by this point, more liquid than solid humans; sweat becoming just another layer on top of sun cream), depositing them at the side of the road to climb the rest of the way à pied. This is one of the steepest roads I think I’ve ever been on, but the reward here is the view (bonus: also the restaurant, Belle Vue, from which we’re vue-ing makes the best fruit juice on the island). We make reservations to return the following night for dinner and sunset (transport inclus), then continue upwards on the gnarly trail behind the place to the mountain’s peak (hint: the view from the restaurant 350 metres below was better).

Adventure points earned: 1 for biking up the absurd hill on leaden bikes; 2 for surviving without suffering heat stroke; 1 for hiking into the jungle, to the top of la montagne, and not falling to the same fate as the storied German*.

One final adventure point is earned for wildlife encounters on the way down: a free-range tortoise greets us, out for its morning stroll (at a tortoise’s pace…arriving to us in the height of the afternoon), enjoying a snack of freshly-fallen mangoes. C befriends the beast and they share a moment.

☀️☀️☀️

20180504_120636-354.jpgThe next day’s dives are similar to the first, with a parallel state of corals and ditto sea critters. They are nice dives with fun swim-thrus and more interesting granite structures than the previous day, sea flora painting the rock its underwater patina. This being a nice but unimpressive dive overall, I was not prepared for what we saw next. As we exited a swim-thru and rounded a corner, a massive, majestic, magnificent marbled ray defied not only the m-adjectives, but my expletives as well, by making itself known. It was nestled between two rocks, flanked by several smaller stingrays, seeking or providing protection, I am not clear. We stayed close, watching their behaviour, the smaller rays coming and going, fawning over the larger in almost a caress; nature never ceasing to amaze. It is at these times I feel fortunate to be a diver, experiencing the undersea world in childlike awe and wonder, as if given special access to explore another planet.

Back on dry land, we bike to the north and then to the east (La Digue map), to where the road ends at Anse Fourmis; jagged rocks teasing the way to a jungle path we are determined to explore when we’ve got more hours (not tonight, tho, we’ve got a date with a sunset). The surf is wilder here, the rocks sharper: testament to a more exposed coastline on this side of the island. The views no less spectacular, and we’re awed anew.

Adventure points earned: 10 for the diving (attributed mostly to the ray and its entourage) plus one for the evening: a lorry ride up and down the giant hill, a sunset dinner and an overall lovely day. I fall asleep with a smile on my face and can’t recall the last time I road a bike with a basket in a bikini.

More diving the next day and a half, adding a handful more adventure points to the tally. The sites are good, but Pemba is still at the top of our list of favourites. We see dolphins from both the room overlooking the ocean, and the boat during the surface interval off Grand Soeur island. There are small black-tip shark sightings, barracuda, moray eels (one more massive than most!), swarms of Indian ocean fish… A collection of fun dives with more granite rock formations to swim thru and sea turtles to swim beside. There’s also a lovely little yellow frogfish, adding to the list of sea critters I’d not seen before this trip.

The diving has been fun thus far, but the end of the road calls… back on La Digue, we mount bikes and head for Anse Fourmis again, and our quest to reach Anse Cocos. It’s like a Monty Python meets Indiana Jones meets Bear Grylls: we’re not 200 metres into the jagged, rocky, jungly trail as the clouds decide to open and release monsoon-like rains. We can continue on and risk life and limb on the rocks and jungle brush, or play it safe and return the way we came. Opting for the latter, the bike ride home is like a 7-year-old’s dream: fat, warm raindrops form giant puddles through which we splash, laughing. We’re soaked to the core when we come across one of the local roadblocks: a massive tortoise, looking spic and span in the downpour. They’ve not yet become a novelty, so we stop to share our oranges with this friendly beast. It is not possible to be more drenched than we already are.

Adventure points earned this day: 1 for the dive, another for a remora that took a fancy to C and remained our dive buddy for the entire dive; add one for bushwhacking and jungle hiking in the rain.

☀️☀️☀️

It is only in hindsight that we declare, “do not eat the chef’s special.”

We return to Anse Banane by bike in the inky darkness, a headlamp and a torch lighting our way through the still-damp night. We’ve come to a highly-recommended restaurant, with its charming décor and seating facing the ocean, the storm-fueled waves crashing fervently across the way. The meal, a lovely smorgasborg of salads and fish of all styles: curry, fritters, grilled (chef’s special), with a home-made banana cake for dessert.

The day, the dives, the hike and the silly soggy bike ride: excellent. The night: not so much. We both wake in the wee hours, reeling from what can only be food poisoning. Details spared, this dashes our last diving day (my 1.5km bike ride to the dive shop to let them know we’re half-dead nearly does me in for good) and has us horizontal, indoors, for the day. With one foray to the beach in a failed attempt at a swim, we retreat to the relative safety of the hotel to recuperate and commiserate. This is not how we wanted to spend our second to last day here…I know C is cursing the elephant. Survivor points: 5.


*About the German: local lore tells of a German tourist who hiked up to Nid d’Aigle with his fellow travellers, spotted a house he wanted to see again, and went back up the mountain on his own. He was never heard from again; search teams and dogs couldn’t even find him. We heard this over lunch from the owner of a café on our way up to Nid d’Aigle…whether the story has morphed into island legend, we’re not clear.

[Seychelles: Part I] [Seychelles: Part III] [C’s recount of the week]

Seychelles, Part I: Dinosaurs, Jurassic beaches and going it by bike.

[Seychelles: Part II] [Seychelles: Part III]

After contemplating even farther-flung possibilities (and deciding they’re not possible within our time constraints), somehow we settle on the Seychelles: warm water in which to dive, jungle to explore, the possibility of seeing interesting critters, some fantastically cool topography…flights, booked!

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Thank you, Google Maps

20180428_115014-3Year of Africa continues. There’s always an elephant.

I arrive on the main island of Mahe first, whisked away by an uber-efficient taxi driver, and am greeted in my hotel room by a towel creature in the form of Ganesha, the elephant-god and my patron saint of sorts, bestowing well-wishes on a weary traveller. He’s my reminder that obstacles may be removed to charm a journey but may also be placed in the way as tests of mettle, meddle and might…all of which one might encounter on holiday in as far-flung a place as a speck of an island in the middle of the Indian ocean.

“Actually, the best gift you could have given her was a lifetime of adventures.” – Lewis Carroll

The Seychelles are volcanic islands, and as such, where jungle meets beach is displayed in spectacular form. Look inland, and the lush hills remind you of a scene straight from Jurassic Park – you expect to see T-Rex or one of his contemporaries bounding through the jungle brush at a moment’s notice. The enormous granite rocks that jut out of the sand like monstrous dinosaur teeth invite one into the bathwater-temperature ocean (if you dare…).

DSC_0105-20After a lazy day fending off jetlag, it’s an early airport run to fetch my flight-weary Calvin, travelling companion (and human) extraordinaire, then a dash to the ferry to take us to La Digue, leaving the relative civilisation of Mahe behind: traffic and construction and bustle, the din of a small city bursting at the seams, desiring to be something larger than it ought. Funny that what we call progress ends up shuttering out the natural world in favour of big buildings, motor vehicles and pavement. Regardless, we’ll be back to spend a day here on the other end of our week’s adventurings.

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What we didn’t realise at the time was that this lorry would haul us up the mountain later in the week…

We arrive on La Digue on a Sunday. It’s noticeably quieter than Mahe, the town itself (La Passe) bustling in that charming way you’d expect from an idyllic island where there are few cars and everyone gets around by bicycle. And because we haven’t obtained our bikes yet, we walk the 1.2km to the guest house, up and down the hills that are to become familiar this week, “Left! Left! Left!” on the mind, because even though there are very few cars, there are bikes (and European tourists and Aldabra tortoises) to dodge. English colonisation here has left at least one vestige: left-side driving.

It’s during this walk, about half-way to the guest house, where we encounter our first free-range tortoise.

An aside on the Seychelles and the Aldabra giant tortoise: Seychelles is an archipelago, consisting of 115 islands of all sizes, plunked in the middle of the Indian Ocean, east of Somalia (yes, there are the occasional pirates) and north of Madagascar (and unfortunately no lemurs or other primates). The farthest-flung outer islands are 1100+km from where we are. One island, Aldabra, is a World Heritage Site and the Indian Ocean’s answer to the Galapagos. Its native species include the Aldabra Tortoise, some of which have made their way to La Digue over the centuries. Being easy prey and a good source of food for La Digue’s earliest residents, the La Digue subspecies of the Aldabra giant tortoise is extinct, so the ones that remain on the island are the original Aldabra variety, many of which are kept, quite loosely, as pets.

Needless to say, encountering a 200-kilo walking dinosaur as you drag your luggage uphill on a 30° C day (with equal humidity) is more than enough reason to stop for a fresh fruit juice by the side of the road and interact with local (semi)wildlife.

☀️☀️☀️☀️☀️

We’re here mostly to dive, but our first full day on the island is spent exploring the world-renowned Anse Source d’Argent. This famous beach (Castaway and Crusoe were filmed here) looks even more unreal in person than it does splattering the pages of every travel mag’s world’s best beaches issue. Je suis d’accord.

20180430_123710To get here, a pleasant bike ride takes us to the southern end of the island, through a vanilla plantation that rends the air a sweet and salty mix. The path to the beach goes by the park’s tortoise pen; a weird sight really, with dozens of the massive reptiles lazing in the sun and engaging with chattering tourists who feed them leaves and grass in a United Nation’s collection of languages.

Then, it’s down some jungly paths which end at the promised Anse. It looks like a lost paradise; a sort of déjà vu, because the beach looks both familiar and surreal mere steps from the throngs of tourists sunning themselves (they don’t show you that on the InstaWeb). But we’ve come south of the equator largely to escape the world at large, so trekking farther south to flee the selfie sticks and instaglamourous beachgoers seemed the right option. Also, the tide was coming in. So we earned some of our adventure points* this day by coining a new water sport: aqua-hiking. The water, waist-deep (my waist) by the time we returned from our exploration, was a refreshing yet balmy bath verging on hot at water’s edge – in hindsight, more than a foreshadowing to what a warming planet had to reveal under the surface.

We’re rewarded mere metres from the selfie-crazed masses: we manage to find a completely empty beach and encounter only a handful of humans between Anse Source d’Argent and the southernmost tip of La Digue. The location scouts got this right.

After the aqua-hike back to the throngs, lazing a bit, and an attempt at sunning ourselves to dry out, we decide to air-dry instead: more biking, up and across the island, to Grand Anse.

An overall fantastic day awarded us our first set of adventure points for the trip: 5 for the aforementioned aqua hiking and discovering deserted beaches; 1 for bikes as mode of transport, navigating the wrong side of the road, and dodging the errant tourist and meandering tortoise; and 1 more for feeding (albeit captive) living dinosaurs, aka, giant tortoises.

Tomorrow, we dive.

Image result for dive flag

[Read C’s words on the trip here] [Seychelles: Part II] [Seychelles: Part III]


*A couple of years ago, C and I devised a system of adventure points to reward ourselves for tackling and completing myriad explorations and adventures. The silly ranking system takes into consideration physical effort, wildlife encounters, natural wonders, vistas, summits, mishaps, getting lost (we do this sometimes), finding unexpected treasures, being gobsmacked by the natural world, getting dirty, getting wet, and other general adventuring. [“let’s go exploring…”]

On long layovers and an observation

I’m getting ready to go on a semi-big trip, grateful for these luxuries, but it all seems a bit absurd: I’m about to get on a plane to take me to a dot of an island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, where I’ll meet my Calvin, the international man of mystery to some; a tall, sort-of dark, handsome polyglot… The dot of an island, apparently a haven for International partying and business dealings (I learnt only after booking)… We’re going to dive, to see nature, to soak in the azure sea. From the outside, one could write a totally different narrative; and so my colleagues think I’m much more interesting than I really am. And, possibly, that I’m a spy.

The adventure starts, as they do, at an airport: I’ve got leaving down to a T, but need to work on my packing skills. My own fault, for I’m travelling with equipment: cameras and dive gear and a sack full of adapters and wires for the electronic things. And snacks.

Taxi, bag drop, security, all go smoothly. Waiting, then boarding, then sitting practically upright for too long, as this metal bird wings me and 200 or so others over the Atlantic and across Europe. Captive for 9 hours, thankful to have been able to sleep on this flight. It’s been a long few weeks back in the real world.

The large international airport is something of a time warp; a black hole, where time and culture and language and fashion meld into a weird melange that’s like a 26-ring circus on amphetamines, but with more neon lighting and these uniformed guys weaving through the throngs on segues.

I’ve landed in Istanbul with a long layover in which to entertain myself. Instead of risking mishap to go exploring in town tonight – I’m only half-way to my final destination as is – I opt to go the lounge route: $30 or so gets you a quiet-ish place to wait out your airport time when you don’t have enough clout or smooth talk to make it into the Turkish Airlines lounge (tried, failed). It covers WiFi, food, drinks, the lot… I’d spend more than this at a crowded restaurant in the airport and wouldn’t be able to stay for 6 hours unbothered!

And so, where one might find this newly-jetlagged wanderer this night is the Milennium Lounge in Istanbul’s airport, while, interestingly enough, cultures and ideologies and politics don’t seem to clash at all here since everyone has better things on which to spend their energies.

[stay tuned for more adventures as Year of Africa continues if and when I have WiFi again]

Mermaid dreams

Sometimes when the rain is pouring down outside and you’re on your last-minute packing frenzy for the next adventure, you pull up video from the last epic dive holiday and hope the Universe is kind and the water is clear and the land and sea critters cooperate and the forces of whatever conspire to allow the spaceship to fling you safely towards the little speck of an island in the middle of some faraway ocean…

Yeah, this is real. I took the footage myself. There are even some clips I should include but didn’t get around to editing (and, yes, at the end…the current was that strong!).