We are missing our friends and family around this wonderful American holiday of Thanksgiving and would like to send our love and great tidings to everyone!

At the same time, we’re inviting everyone to send personal updates, stories and pictures to our personal emails so we can hear how loved ones are fairing as we begin to close in on the end of 2013.

Circumstances and happenstances

Circumstances and happenstances

It’s common to see women carry things on the tops of their heads.

Bali women

Bali women

One of the interesting things we’ve seen around Bali is the use of female porters. A job that is usually done by men in other countries, these women tote all kinds of stuff including bags of cement/sand weighing in at around 50 pounds. The method is to wrap a towel on the top of the head for cushioning and proper weight distribution and balance. They’re not large people, either. In fact, most are small in stature. In Amed (and nearby Tulumben), they’re contracted to transport scuba tanks and equipment. The tanks weigh roughly 45 pounds and are stacked on their shoulders two at a time. (There were some male porters there, too). They don’t look it, but I’d say these folks are pretty tough.

Every place we’ve been to in Indonesia, the people often smile and say ‘hello’. And not since Egypt has there been so many people with the same name. In Egypt, every other guy was named “Mohammed”. On Bali, it seems every man is named either Nyoman, Wayan, or Made. The women we met here, as in Egypt, had fairly unique names.

In Manado, northern Sulawesi, the population is primarily Christian so names like Steven, Maria, Jane and Ronald are the norm. According to one cab driver, Sulawesi would like to break away from the rest of Indonesia since it is Christian and the rest of the country is dominated by Muslims. When I hear things like this, the question usually runs through my head,”Why can’t we all just get along?

We’re doing some island hopping which presents the logistical problem of getting around. Short boat or ferry rides are ok but longer ones call for uncomfortable, over-crowded conditions and safety concerns. That leaves air travel. The routes we’re interested in are serviced by primarily by Lion Air, but buying tickets isn’t easy since we can’t pay on-line with a foreign/non-Indonesian credit card. As easy as it would be to post that on their website, it’s not mentioned anywhere. After having my cards rejected several times, I had to call their office to try to book and get more information. They allowed me to reserve seats for about 3 hours until I could get to the airport to pay for them. Afterwards, there were some email exchanges to ask about payments and where the offices were located. It took 2 emails to the ‘contact us’ on the website but I was finally answered through the customer service email address. The answer, however, was totally unintelligible….”We can inform you that for booking reserves in the water already in the Disable lion.”

We knew there was a layover when we booked our flight to Manado, but weren’t told anything about it when we checked in. Nor were we given much information about the flight delay. When we finally made it on the plane we discovered fairly small seats (despite the plane being a large Boeing) and a ragged interior with the seat pocket extended out enough to hit my knees. The easy listening music made the flight(s) that much more goopy and unpleasant.

The plane arrived safely thereby getting us across the equator for the 4th time by only a couple of degrees.

One of the things we wanted to accomplish in Manado was to go to the local immigration office to get a visa extension. Since our visas are good for 30 days and our intended stay in Indonesia is just under 6 weeks, we needed to go to an immigration office for the extension and Manado had one. We researched the process and it seemed to vary from hours to days to a week or more. Not sure exactly what to expect, we figured we could get it done within a week so booked our flights 8 days out from our arrival.

Manado locals hangin' and fishin'

Manado locals hangin’ and fishin’

We arranged for a hotel in Manado before arrival since it would be late at night. Dissatisfied with it for being old and shabby, we checked out leaving our bags there while we went to take care of the visas. We arrived at the visa office at about 9:30am and were told by the person at the desk that her boss was in a meeting. (Someone else told us he got the same answer as a full-blown office party was going on, karaoke music blaring and all!) As we sat patiently (fortunately they had wifi) we could see a whole lot of nothing going on behind the counter. Officials were eating, talking, rolling around on their chairs…. Not much was happening, so just before noon they advised us to grab lunch. We did so at a close-by restaurant, and of course, there were some of the officials eating at the same place. Back at the office, things continued as they had in the morning.

Mikrolets: the local way of getting around

Mikrolets: the local way of getting around

Our plans were really up in the air at that point. We had no place lined up to stay and since we weren’t sure how long it would take to get our visas, we didn’t even know how long we’d need to stay in the city of Manado. As we looked online for places to stay in Manado, anything in our budget didn’t look very good. Our plans were to go to Palau (island) Bunaken for some snorkeling and diving but we didn’t really know when we could go there. Then a guy with long blond greying hair walked into the immigration office and we start conversing. Terry Bradford is a native Australian and is somehow related to William Bradford, the 17th century Governor of Plymouth, MA. He had a great suggestion for a hotel where he knew the owner and his wife called him to book us a room for the night. Terry seemed to know quite a bit about Manado and Palau Bunaken. It turned out he is also the owner of a diving hotel/resort on Palau Bunaken.

By about 2:30pm we went to check in with the people behind the desk at immigration. Nothing had progressed, so with lots of apologies, they suggested we return Monday or Tuesday, five or six days hence. It made us a bit nervous since our flight out was early Wednesday morning but we didn’t have much choice. Terry’s place sounded pretty good, so we went looking for him, found him drinking a cup of coffee around the corner, asked if he had space for us. In a matter of minutes we had him cancel our Manado hotel and arranged to join him at the marina to catch a boat to the Sea Breeze resort.

The Seabreeze Resort

The Sea Breeze Resort

The reefs and sea life in Indonesia are in great condition, near ‘pristine’ as per the guide books, though, similar to the Caribbean, you don’t see fish as large as in past years. Still, diving and snorkeling are spectacular as there is such aquatic diversity and I’m continually seeing new species of fish and coral. One of the peculiar aspects, and something to watch out for, are the currents. They can be fast and change direction and speed very rapidly. We saw a news article about a diver who got swept into a current and floated for 16 hours before getting picked up by fishermen.

Paying close attention to the tides and currents, Cindy and I snorkeled the reef in front of our resort. We found a few ways to account for the fast currents, usually starting in one spot, drifting along with current and walking to/from the resort. The scuba dives I did were all ‘drift dives’ where the divers go below the surface drifting with the current until the end of the dive when the boat, which has been ‘following’ the divers, picks them up wherever they happen to surface.

The last post included a story about an aggressive parrotfish. The correct species was actually a Titan Triggerfish. Now I am constantly on the lookout for those suckers. My fears were confirmed by a diver who showed me a scar made by one that actually bit his leg.

The truly sad and disheartening sights we’ve seen here have been the amounts of trash floating in the waters. For unexacting reasons, the $15 park fees do not appear to benefit the environment. There is lax enforcement of the laws and commercial deals are often made resulting in a compromised natural environment. In the future, they stand to lose a lot of tourist income, though, they may not realize it for a long time. From a day-to-day view, it’s common to see people cleaning the streets in front of their homes or stores but it’s just as common to see people to throw out trash without the use of proper receptacles. Environmental education could go a long way to helping the country and people.

We took a dolphin tour early one morning, like 6am-early. Woof. But were rewarded with seeing perhaps 200-300 dolphins swimming and frolicking in the Celebes Sea. They would sometimes swim alongside or in front of the boat and I would occasionally see them in the distance breaching the water with spins and flips. Try as I would, my camera had a delayed shutter –and the dolphins weren’t saying when they would jump or dive– so I had difficulty catching many good photos.

Bottlenose dolphins

Bottlenose dolphins

There were several fishing boats in the area using a unique system to catch the same fish the dolphins were pursuing. The fishermen would fly kites that trailed fishing lures which dropped in the water as far as perhaps 50 meters behind the boats thereby avoiding interference from the long tails of the boat propellers.

The public ferry back to Sulawesi

The public ferry back to Sulawesi

I’m not sure exactly what the locals paid for the ferry, but I’m certain it wasn’t close to the $5 the tourists paid. I appreciated that it was open information that the tourist price was higher than the price paid by locals.

There were a couple of serious rummy games happening on the ferry

There were a couple of serious rummy games happening on the ferry

Back on the main island of Sulawesi, we hit the immigration office early on Tuesday, the day before our early morning flight. We reminded them our flight was the next day and, sure enough, we had our visa extensions in one and a half hours and were good to go. We passed the Governor’s office on the way and caught a game of croquet going on in the front yard.


Manado is not a tourist town but a pass-through to other destinations and home to numerous provincial government offices. As such, we benefited from paying local prices for many things including a stay at the newish hotel (recommended by the Bradfords and breakfast included) for about $25 a night and a couple of awesome meals at the restaurant across the street. Cindy and I had delicious fresh fish, veggies, rice and drinks for less than $5 for both of us. However, we had to be very careful walking down the streets as there were immense gaps in the sidewalks.

Gaps, large and small, were a common sight

Gaps in the sidewalk, large and small, were a common sight in Manado

Complete with our extended visas, we left Manado for Labuan Bajo on the island of Flores.

Lion air

Getting our feet wet in Indonesia

We heard Kuta (town on the island of Bali) was inundated with tourists but since we only had a general sense of where we wanted to go and do in Indonesia, and since what we were arriving late at night and just needed a place close to the airport to crash, we figured we could handle it. How bad could it be? Well, as Joni Mitchell wrote and sang, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”. McDonald’s, KFC, Burger King, Pizza Hut…you name it, they got it in Kuta; a giant mall with doors wide open blowing cold air out on to the street, oodles of retailers, hotels, restaurants, hawkers, touts all doing the dance. So the plan was to put a plan together for a country that spans over 17,000 islands. But first we had to see the beach. It was lined with all the things we wanted to get away from, but wow, what a beach!

Kuta Beach, Bali

Kuta Beach, Bali

Our expectation for Indonesia was for lots of beach and water but since we weren’t sure how much else we’d encounter on other islands, we headed inland and north for a town called Ubud. It had its share of tourists but with a bit of a bohemian flavor; lots of art galleries, yoga and practicing various healing arts. We took the tourist bus there and on the way I noticed quite a few temples. More than a few, in fact. They seemed to be everywhere, and were. I came to find out that each house has a “pura” or temple. The Balinese Hindu really take their religion seriously.

hindu doorway


temple entrance

In Ubud they were preparing for a massive funeral cremation ceremony as the eldest of the local royal family had died. They were preparing for the ceremony by building a massive structure about 50 or 60 feet high that would hold the body as it was being cremated. They built a staircase, too, to accommodate the logistics of getting the body to the top.

funerary stack

Stairway to heaven?

Stairway to heaven

We didn’t stay in Ubud for the ceremony, though, I’m certain it would have been quite the sight. The entire structure would be held up by throngs of people and taken to the site where it would become a funeral pyre.

Ubud had a long-tail macaque sanctuary called The Sacred Monkey Forest. Monkeys represent positive and negative forces in Bali. They’re thought to chase away evil spirits from the temples.

A beautiful, quiet and  peaceful sanctuary.

Beautiful, quiet and peaceful.

monkey forest ii

There were lots of long-tailed macaques and naturally a few locals selling fruit to tourists to feed them. A totally unnecessary thing to do since the macaques are fed by the conservators anyway. But some tourists insist on being, well, tourists.

Moments before the macaque urinated on him.

Moments before the macaque urinated on him.

We purchased tickets to see a traditional Barong dance. We enjoyed it but perhaps we would not have gone if we’d known we’d be presented with an opportunity to see one during a holiday ceremony in a few days hence.

Barong dancers

Barong dancers

Our home-stay (similar to a Bed and Breakfast) in Ubud was probably the best value in accommodations we’ve had since starting out. For about $17 and a half dollars a night, we had air conditioning, great wifi and breakfast.

The next leg of our journey consisted of a bus to boat combo. For a difference of a couple of dollars, I purchased the ticket through one of the multitudes of travel agents. Everyone seems to be a travel agent or tour operator offering to set up buses, taxis, boats, tours, whatever. We took a ‘naturally’ air conditioned minivan to the dock at Sanur where we had to step from the beach and into the water before boarding the boat to Nusa Lembongan (island). I’d heard about Nusa Lembongan from a dive instructor in Curacao who deemed it a laid-back alternative to some of the hectic tourist towns of Bali. It was a great tip.

Lembongan harbor--Mt. Agung, Bali in the background

Lembongan harbor–Mt. Agung, Bali in the background

The rub came when I went to sign up for a scuba dive to a site called Manta Point. Since I am PADI certified as an “Open Water Diver” I am only supposed to be allowed to dive to a maximum depth of 18 meters or 60 feet. The dive center insisted on having an “Advanced Open Water” certification to dive deeper to a site like Manta point. By now I had completed over 185 dives and gone deeper than 60 feet many times, and almost double that on a handful of occasions. The instructor who dove with me a day earlier attested to my diving abilities but the shop owner insisted on having the Advanced certificate. But “money” talks to shop owners and the PADI organization. I had to swallow hard since this went against personal tenants (hands-on, experiential learning and performance-based merits) that successfully lead me down many roads in my life. I bit the proverbial bullet and completed the course gaining my advanced certificate as well as some underwater compass skills that would come in handy at some point.

In our rented sarongs on the way to a local ceremony  for Kuningan

In our rented sarongs on the way to a local ceremony for Kuningan

Cindy and I spent our last two days on Nusa Lembongan snorkeling. As much as I love scuba diving (I liken it to cheating nature with specialized equipment while touring an underwater jungle), snorkeling is simple way to have a lot of fun and often results in surprising scenery or events. We went to the north side of the island where we would not need a boat and could snorkel right off shore. There was a lot of beautiful coral and a few species of fish I’d never seen before. On our way to shore on the first day, we saw the biggest fish I’d ever seen snorkeling and ranked quite high even among fish I’d seen diving. I’m guessing it weighed about 45 lbs, oval in shape and about 3-4 feet long. I’m not sure of the species as I’d never seen one before.

On the next day I had a real shocker. As I was snorkeling, I looked down and saw the biggest parrotfish I’d ever seen coming right at me. It must have been about 2-3 feet long and a guesstimated weight of 25-30 pounds. It’s teeth were grinning as it approached, almost in a sardonic smile, its beak pointed right in my direction. I waited a few seconds to make sure I was the target and sure enough it stayed its course. When it got about 3 feet from me I started kicking my fins in its direction. I didn’t know what was next or how close it would get or if it would try to bite me, but it veered off when it was less than a foot away, swam away for about 10-15 feet and then turned and came at me again! I fended it off the same way and the same thing happened; it swam away only to return for another run at me. This happened about 7 or 8 times. It came after Cindy once and another snorkeler a couple of times, as well. I would have been more than mystified about the whole incident except that the very night before, Cindy and I went to a lecture called “The Weird Wonderful Water Life” given by a local marine research conservationist. During the talk he described a similar incident with a parrotfish explaining that it was a territorial behavior. Needless to say, I avoided Mr. Giant Parrotfish’s area afterwards.

Nusa Lembongan is famous for its sunsets

Nusa Lembongan is famous for its sunsets

Cindy read a lot of scary reviews of some of the ferries around Indonesia, enough to alter our itinerary somewhat. We’d still go everywhere we wanted but would have to reroute. Another glitch put our plans when we went on line to book our flights to the northern Sulawesi city of Manado using Lion Air. We couldn’t pay for the flights on the website. We tried calling them but they wouldn’t take payment over the phone. The only way to pay would be to go to the Denpasar airport back on Bali and there was no guarantee we’d get the same price as we saw on their website.

We had another more critical reason to go to Bali. Cindy’s iPad crashed and needed to be replaced. Unfortunately, they didn’t have one with enough memory so the replacement purchase would have to wait.

After going to the airport to pay for the tickets, we headed to the northeast coast of Bali to an area called Amed known for its diving and snorkeling. It’s a relaxing town –actually a string of towns that hug the coast for about 10km– and quite mellow. Our hotel was a great value, as well. For less than $30 there was a pool and an ocean view!

View from Anugerah Villa

View from Anugerah Villa

Aside from enjoying the wonderful snorkeling in numerous spots right off the coast, I did a couple of scuba dives and Cindy did a free-diving course.

The Mekong Delta

The Mekong Delta

The Mekong Delta was our last destination in Vietnam. Aaron joined us again, this time coming from Nepal after completing the Everest Base trek.

We're back together again, but still missing Ali!

We’re back together again, but still missing Ali!

As suggested by our guide-book, we took a one-day tour from Saigon and then bailed out at the conclusion by having the bus drop us in My Tho while it headed back to Saigon. The tour was a reminder of why we often prefer exploring on our own. The guide’s English was fair, at best, and the tour group got herded like sheep from one (sometimes cursory) sight or activity to another.

 He actually said, "This is a coconut." Oy!

He actually said, “This is a coconut.” Oy!

In fairness, we did get to tour an agricultural area, a rice cake factory, hear some local musicians and singers, tour a coconut candy factory, ride on a horse-drawn carriage and ride through some beautiful narrow channels on a motorized boat as well as a small boat rowed by a native.

Mekong row boats

Mekong row boats

While touring the candy factory, a minor disaster struck when the sticky stuff caused a crown to dislodge. Fortunately, I didn’t swallow the crown but was now facing a dentist visit in Ho Chi Minh City.

The culprit: Coconut candy. The victim: Got a sweet tooth.

The culprit: Coconut candy. The victim: Got a sweet tooth.

It felt odd but kind of cool when we left the tour group and the bus dropped off on the highway at an intersection of the road leading to the town of My Tho. We were traveling light as we’d left the majority of our luggage and clothes in HCMC bringing one small backpack each. I commandeered three xe oms (motor-scooters) with drivers and Cindy, Aaron and I motorcaded our way to the harbor and our hotel. It was only a few kilometers and a fun way to travel.

The next day we continued our journey south, this time taking a taxi to the highway where we would get a bus to Can Tho, the central hub of the Mekong and home to the Mekong Delta’s largest floating market. The ‘bus stop’ consisted of a few plastic seats, a food vendor and a couple of local ‘charges d’faire’ who would flag the buses down. We didn’t wait but a few minutes before a sleeper-bus stopped. I negotiated the fare down by a third, though, I’m sure we still paid a premium tourist price.

Since the best time to visit the market was early in the am, we walked around Can Tho on foot before Cindy and I rented bikes to explore the surroundings more afield. We took a small local ferry to cross a Mekong River tributary and rode down some narrow alley-ways where almost everyone had a big phat ‘hello’. We must have gotten hundreds of hello’s and had a great time; no other tourists, just the locals going about their day-to-day stuff and us cruising the slow road.


Going through Hung Phu village

Cruising through Hung Phu village

It had been raining almost every day in the late afternoon and we were keeping an eye on some clouds gathering in the distance. We headed back to catch the little ferry to Can Tho just in time to beat the big rains.

Boats on the Can Tho floating market

Boats on the Can Tho floating market

Our floating-market guide picked us up at our hotel at 6:30am and we walked to her small long-tail motor boat which we had to ourselves. She spoke no English, though, we didn’t mind. We enjoyed the ride passing several large tour boats carrying 10-15 passengers and feeling very grateful for our intimate experience.

 We never got used to Vietnamese-style breakfasts of noodles and soup but selections on the Mekong were limited

We never got used to Vietnamese-style breakfasts of noodles and soup but selections on the Mekong were limited

We toured a rice-noodle factory (again, happy no English was spoken) and toured some beautiful tributaries while appreciating the sights of the local back-waters.

That little fella gave us one phat "Hello"

That little fella gave us one phat “Hello”

Fishing big on a Mekong tributary

Fishing big on a Mekong tributary

In the afternoon, we headed back to HCMC/Saigon. It was a day earlier than originally planned since I still had to contend with the ‘crown situation’ and I had been in touch with our hotel who recommended a local English-speaking dentist where I could get my crown re-attached. We had purchased our bus tickets through our hotel, and as if often the case, it was hard to tell exactly where the bus station was located. Once there, we could take a local bus to our hotel. It sounded pretty easy, though, it was confusing to find the right local bus. It turned out we only had to go a few stops and it was even a walkable distance to our hotel.

I was right on time for my dentist appointment which turned out to be only a few minutes walk from our hotel. I entered the office and was immediately directed to take off my flip-flops and to put theirs on. I waited about 5 minutes and then saw a hygienist who sent me upstairs to see the dentist after a quick look in my mouth. I met the dentist who did indeed speak English and had been practicing dentistry for 8 years….though, how much conversation do you really have with a dentist anyway? For about $10 he re-installed my crown and off I went!

The last day in HCMC was spent walking around and relaxing. We would not be seeing Aaron again for a long time since he’d decided he would probably return to teaching English in South Korea.

We tried our best to seek out some last great meals. We enjoyed our time in Vietnam, the sights, the food and of course, the people. They were so friendly, open and helpful. Oh, and did I mention the food?…heck yeah! We’re going to miss that, too.