Safari Chic

It had been seven years since we’d been on safari, so when Mark’s mom asked us if we wanted to join her in Africa, it was pretty easy to say, “Yes!”  After a bit of planning we decided to join an organized group tour that was heading to Botswana, Zimbabwe and Zambia for the first eighteen days in August.  We were joined by Diane’s long-time friend from Kingsburg, Jo Ann Polenz.  The four of us made great travel partners, and even though there were a few bumps in the road, we are very grateful for the time we got to spend with both of them.


Among the highlights were some spectacular animal sightings, some thoughtful retrospection about conservation and life in general, and some beautiful lodges.  Lowlights included violent diarrhea, a trip leader who was determined to say no to everything we asked him, and way too many group activities of “Learning and Discovery.”  I will share just a few memories.

Elliot’s Pontification on Life

On our first morning game safari in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, our guide Elliot Nobula drove just out of the camp and then stopped the jeep. He climbed out and bent over to pick a few twigs off a small bush. It was wild basil, and by crushing the leaves suddenly the sweet aroma of basil was overpowering. Each of us held a piece of the fragrant basil as he spoke.  What started as a simple explanation of the plant, turned into a beautiful poem.

“This plant may smell like something you may remember. All living organisms have a way of communicating with us.  Right now this plant is talking and has joined our conversation.  Considering that I have learnt to appreciate and understand true language passed on to me by all living organisms, be it animals, trees, insects, also herbs like this wild basil, that smells like comfort, like Vicks.   Every time I find it out there I pick it up and behave as if I’m addicted to it.

In my village, when children cry all night long it is thought the innocent kids are seeing goblins or spirits.  The elders then advise and encourage the use of this weed by burning it on the hot charcoal. As it smolders it drives the bad spirits out for good.  Basically as the smoke fills the hut the kids’ nasal cavities open up and feel better from the mucus congestion.  So would we say the bad spirits live in the nasal cavity? Ha! Food for thought!

These plants talk to other animals such that they do not get browsed, so they can reach maturity and the seeds can be re-propagated. It is an amazing defensive manner since these animals may not like the taste.

All living organisms’ first and most important mandate is to maintain their gene pool, so they evolve and adapt in a manner where they continue to regenerate and reproduce.  Hence they are like us. We want to see our own reflection in the mirror.  That mirror is our own offspring.

Humans just need to humble themselves in front of Mother Nature so that they have a mutual relationship with other living organisms which they clearly depend on.  With this attitude to all around us, conservation may be achieved through sustainable utilization in a symbiotic relationship.

If this was my supermarket, it would remain to be my church too, since I pray all the time without trying too hard.”


Elliot Nobula

Afterwards he said, “With that prayer, let’s go see if we can find some elephants.”

Elephant Ahead!

When our tiny plane landed in the Okavango Delta on a desolate airstrip, we were met by two guides waiting for us in jeeps.  On the short drive to camp we spotted a few elephants walking in a lush marsh, and we quietly watched them for a while.  Then we noticed a lone bull elephant a little further away.  Kabo, our guide, expertly moved our jeep so that we would be right in his path.  Sure enough, a few minutes later the bull approached us and came so close that a few of us could have reached out and touched him. It was thrilling and frightening at the same time, and I smiled as I heard Diane say something to the driver. I couldn’t quite make it out, but it was something along the lines of, “Uh, are we ok? There’s an ELEPHANT right there.”  It was quite a moment and luckily Nick got a great shot of it from the other vehicle.


The Wild Dog Chase

It was day five of our safari and we still hadn’t seen a predator except for a few wonderful minutes the first morning when we spotted the leopard.  We were now in the Okavango Delta which was full of all kinds of exciting predators, so we knew it was only a matter of time.  Since we had arrived there the camp guides were talking about the wild dogs that lived nearby. Wild dogs are not as well known as some of the other African predators, but keep in mind that they are not feral dogs that used to be domesticated. They are their own wild species, sometimes called “the Painted Dog” because of their unique markings. Their populations are incredibly endangered and there are only about 250 packs left on earth.

Here in the Delta, their den, which had been located and marked by the guides, was recently abandoned.  The guides were worried because there were lion tracks around the den, and their fear was that perhaps lions had killed their pups.  The pack hadn’t been seen since the lion tracks were discovered. In fact, as we were out game driving we met a group of researchers and our guide informed them of the bad news about the lion tracks near then den.  The researchers’ faces dropped and they looked visibly upset.

But that afternoon while we took our siesta, Wise went searching for signs of them and spotted their tracks. As soon as we jumped in the jeep he took us straight to their last tracks.  He said that since the sun was almost down it was likely that they would be waking up soon to start hunting. Within twenty minutes, suddenly, there they were! It was so exciting to spot them!  Sure enough, they were just trotting across the bush, and we counted 18 of them.



One pup was missing, so the lion probably got him, but the guides were stoked to see that the other pups were still alive.  Within minutes the dogs started spreading out into a wide flank, in hunting formation.   It’s sort of surprising to learn that wild dogs are the most effective predators in Africa. Because they can run for long distances and always hunt together, they can tire out almost any type of prey. As a survival strategy, all prey animals have a “zone of safety” that they alter depending on the type of predator.  If they see a lion nearby, they know how far away they need to be in order to be safe from getting caught. A cheetah, who is faster, requires a different safety distance.  In general most prey animals prefer to “see” their predators from a distance so they know where they are.  Wild dogs are different. There is no comfortable safety zone between a prey animal and a wild dog. If a prey animal sees a dog, he starts running.  No matter how far away a wild dog is, he can eventually take down prey. The dogs just tire out their prey by running forever.

So on this night the dogs quickly spread out so widely that they were almost a mile apart. They were setting up to use their strategy of confusing their prey and coming in at every angle. Which such a large pack, it seemed likely they would eat soon.  Of course as they spread out they strayed off the road, but the beauty of being in a private reserve, rather than a game park, is that we were allowed to drive off road.  We were in Wise’s vehicle (which was lucky, as he is the MASTER of tracking and rough driving).  He took off after them driving through bushes and ditches and chasing them like mad.

Africa_MikaPics-4At one point they led us to a marsh and they crossed over it to a small island.  Wise looked at the deep water between us and the island, and hesitated a bit considering the risk of driving through the deep water.  Eventually he went for it and we prayed we didn’t get stuck. We made it! We got to the island and in the bushes we found the four pups and two “babysitter” dogs with them. The rest of the pack had kept going and were nowhere in sight.  It seemed the pups had stayed behind because they couldn’t keep up, so they were playing around on the marshy island while the babysitters watched over them.  The puppies were so adorable. About three months old, they were just starting to learn about hunting so today was just a play day for them.


We had a wonderful five minutes with them until suddenly there was a long shriek of howling in the distance.  Mark said, “I think they caught something.” He was right!  About a mile away the pack had taken down a lechwe, a small antelope. When wild dogs catch something, they all go crazy for a moment with excitement.  The pups and the babysitters’ ears perked up and immediately the babysitters took off, obviously anxious to get a piece of that antelope. The puppies fell behind and suddenly the babysitters had swum across to the next patch of land and the puppies waited hesitantly on the shore, afraid to cross the water by themselves. We all got very worried that the pups would get lost. One of them tried to swim across but halfway there changed his mind and swum back. The others stood at the bank nervously.  Ironically our driver Wise was in a similar predicament. He wanted to drive through the water to catch up with the pack, but he wasn’t sure the jeep would make it either. Finally Wise started driving across and at the same time the pack made a loud howl again. As soon as the pups heard it, they dove into the water, following us and the sounds of their family.

We all arrived at the kill around the same time, and the pups got in the action, chewing on what was left of the carcass. The entire antelope was completely eaten within ten minutes.  It was an amazing thing to see!


Lion Tracking

After the excitement of the wild dog hunt, we went to bed with happy hearts, but we were woken in the middle of the night by a male lion roaring in our camp. Everyone heard it and at breakfast we all talked about it excitedly.  We jumped in Wise’s vehicle after breakfast and he followed the lion’s tracks straight out of camp.  In the vehicle with us was Glen, the Kawi Village representative who was there to ensure the guides followed the rules and respected their land.  But Glen was not really an enforcer. He and Wise had a long history of tracking together and the two of them set to work tracking this male lion.  Watching them work together following the tracks was thrilling. They would drive for a minute, and then study the tracks. Sometimes one or the other would jump out to look at tracks and point in a direction to the other and they would both jump back in and drive on.  After about five minutes they said the tracks had changed and now there was a female and a young adult as well.  Later they remarked that there was a giraffe. And then, very quietly, Glen motioned to the left and said, “There are the lions.”  Lying about 10 feet away from us under the bushes were five gigantic lions.  All were sleeping except the male lion, who had a recently-killed baby giraffe in his claws and was busy munching its neck.  They looked up at us but didn’t seem bothered in the least.



I really enjoyed watching Mark’s mom’s reaction.  She looked frightened but awed and utterly on the edge of her seat.  Jo Ann had already stood up and Wise quietly said, “Ok, guys. These are LIONS.  Do not stand up or make any quick movements.” Jo Ann sat down.  Mark and I grinned.

We settled the jeep just a few feet away from them and spent the next half hour watching the male enjoy his breakfast.  The two sister females had caught the giraffe early that morning.  The mama, auntie and two eight-month-old cubs had already feasted on it before the male showed up.  They all were relaxing in the warm morning sun with full bellies.


Later we watched as the cubs tried to go back to the carcass for seconds.  The male lion growled as they approached and when the male cub moved a little closer, the male lion made a ferocious fake charge that sent the cub running.  The male then dragged his paw across the sand making a line, and urinating over it. It was a clear sign that this boundary was not to be crossed.  However, a few minutes later when the female cub tried the same thing, the male lion’s growling was half-hearted and eventually he let her snuggle up to him and eat more of the carcass. The guide explained that the male was already feeling a bit competitive with his son, who would eventually leave the pride to find his own, whereas this female cub daughter would stay in the pride forever and would soon be hunting for her father, so he felt a stronger allegiance to her.  Daddy’s little girl.

We came back late that afternoon and the lions were still napping in the bushes.  We were treated to a delightful little “hunt” by the female cub.  A jackal showed up, probably smelling the kill, and started trotting around the perimeter trying to figure out if he could steal a snack. Of course he didn’t stand a chance against the male lion, but he was just checking.  The female cub spotted him and for a few moments started stalking him.  He ran off eventually but it was great to see her skills getting more refined!

Flying the helicopter in the Delta with Wise and Junior

Mark got to fly his drone at each of the parks, but one of the highlights was in the Delta.  The camp manager Junior was quite keen to see the drone in action, so he arranged for Wise to drive us out to the bush for a bit of flying after lunch.  It was Wise, Junior, Mark and I, and it was so nice to be without the group for a change.  On the way out we were lucky to spot a sparrow hawk flying low with a snake in his talons.  He dropped the snake and then flew off.  Then a Tawny Eagle swooped down, grabbed the snake, and took off.  Wise, who is a self-proclaimed “bird lover,” started shaking his head when we asked him what had happened.  He said, “It doesn’t make sense. The sparrow hawk doesn’t hunt snakes. And why did he drop it?  Maybe it’s a different bird?” He studied the scene with his binoculars and flipped through his bird book and finally he said, “Aha. That sparrow hawk was after a mouse, and grabbed it just as a snake was also trying to eat the mouse. The snake got caught in his talons too. When the snake fell, the sparrow hawk flew off to eat the mouse and then the Tawny Eagle came down and swooped up the snake.” Pretty cool turn of events!

We arrived at a clearing and Mark showed the boys how the helicopter worked and then flew over a group of hippos.  He let Wise fly it a little bit and both of them were excited about the potential for photography from the drone vantage.   It was a magical moment for sure.

Observations about African Life and Culture

I find that many travelers try to make quick generalizations about the people and cultures they meet, attempting to put them “in a box” so they can easily understand and classify them.  I am hypersensitive to these quick, hasty observations, and I endeavor to keep my eyes and ears open before making judgements.  However, one thing I feel fairly confident in summing up is that family is so much more important here in southern Africa.  Almost everyone has large extended families and they rely on each other so much more than in the US.  Aunties are necessary to help you arrange your marriage.  If you and your boyfriend want to get married, he has to go to your auntie with his family to work out the details.  I asked, “What if your mom or dad doesn’t have a sister? What if you don’t have an auntie?” and I was answered, “You always have an auntie. It’s impossible for you not to have auntie! You have many aunties!”

Extended family members also take care of your cattle and farms when you go to the city to work.  In the city, family members take in cousins and nieces and nephews when they are going to school. However, people prefer to retire back in their villages, even if they are humble and without even water and electricity, rather than remain in the cities where they worked and raised their children (just like in Mexico).

Though they are gradually modernizing, people are much more conservative about issues like homosexuality and women’s rights.  Women cannot drink or smoke without getting a bad “reputation.”  Men still get much more respect and privileges than women.  In fact, a wife is not supposed to look directly into her husband’s eyes because it will appear that she is “challenging him.”

American culture is slowly influencing the youth, especially TV. The Kardashians were a topic. We were asked about them and their general comment was, “We are very confused by them.” So are we!.

The way people talk is beautiful and gentle and full of laughter.  They speak English fluently with a singsong African accent, and occasionally use delightful diction and turns of phrases like “If you wish to extend your territory, we can stop the jeep at any time.”  Whenever a guide gave us a briefing, he ended with, “So, are we together?”  Their accents and diction still ring in my head melodically.

Why Mark and I “Do Not Play Well with Others”

I definitely learned a bit about myself during these eighteen days on a group tour.  After about Day 3, Mark and I were ready to ditch the tour.  It wasn’t that we didn’t get along with our fellow travelers—they were all quite pleasant, polite, and friendly.  It was just that we didn’t want to follow the trip leader, Hupu.  It was so hard to let him lead us around, giving us a “briefing” at least four times a day, dictating when we would eat, when we would sleep, and even when we would go to the bathroom.

As many of you know, I am used to being the leader (they didn’t call me Michaela “I have a better idea” Monahan during girl scouts for nothing!). So it was natural that when our leader Hupu told us how the morning would go, often I would have some suggestions.  Now I know that being on a group tour means compromise, and I suppose I probably need to work on that aspect of myself, but gosh darn it, my ideas were good ones!  Anytime I asked for a tiny little modification, he would say no without even considering a way to accommodate me.  From the very beginning he seemed not to like Mark and me, perhaps because we were the odd balls of the group, the only ones under 65, not dressed in khakis with pocketed vests, and travelling with a helicopter drone.  (As an aside, before we left I was joking with Diane about her packing list, and I was teasing her about avoiding fashion faux paxs.  My advice was to avoid this:


And if necessary, lean towards “safari chic.”

safari chic

You can guess what our fellow travellers looked like.)

The other problem was that we had already been on several safaris and every time they had been private ones in which we called all the shots.  If we saw a lion kill and wanted to hang out for an hour and see if the hyenas showed up, we did.  If we wanted to get up an hour early so we hit the bush right at sunrise, we would.  Now, suddenly, we had to go along with the group.  So that made this safari significantly inferior to the other ones, which was a major bummer.

Finally, since Mark and I began travelling together almost twenty years ago, we have always avoided group tours because we crave our independence.  We like to skip a day sometimes and just lounge around camp, soak up the camp atmosphere, or spend time writing. We like to make time for working out.   But our trip leader was adamant that we participate in everything. For example, each meal (breakfast, lunch and dinner) was set on a long table in which there was a guide or staff member seated at every third seat. The purpose was for us to interact with our fellow guests and African hosts.  And this is great, but not for every meal.  After a while we realized we were spending just a few minutes a day talking with Mark’s mom because we were expected to socialize with so many other members of the group.  We started feeling bitter that our “quality time” was being hijacked by our Nazi trip leader.   I tried to hijack it back by sneaking into the dining room early and rearranging chairs just so we could all sit together, and I would hustle back and forth from the bar to our tents during happy hour so we could enjoy our drinks privately before dinner. But it was a real EFFORT just to have time to talk.

Anyway, lesson learned! We will never do a group tour again!

“In our culture, we eat cornflakes for breakfast.” Why this group was hilarious.

Ok, let me remind you that the other ten Americans joining us on this trip were all good natured, kind people.  Some of them were also fairly well-travelled, though without much experience travelling independently. However, a few of them said some hilarious things that kept us giggling in our tents for many hours after dinner.

For example, they frequently felt the need to “educate” our African guides, waiters, and housekeeping staff about the ways of America.  They seemed genuinely convinced that the staff was actually interested in learning about our cultures, and I can’t count the number of times I heard them explaining, “In our culture, the women go to work…” or, “In our culture, we eat cornflakes for breakfast.”  It was clear to me and Mark that when a staff member hovered over our shoulder during dessert, she really had zero interest in learning about our culture, and actually just wanted to know if we wanted tea or coffee.  But our fellow guests naively thought differently.

The cherry on top was the last night of each of the four camps we stayed at.   There was a predictable “last night at camp” show performed by the staff, in which everyone came out from behind the scenes to sing a few African songs in their local language. Their voices were beautiful and a few of them seemed into it, but overall they were basically “on the clock” dancing for the Americans.   But what was worse is that after they finished singing, they invited us up to perform. Hmm…what did the staff expect? And more importantly, what did they want?  I believe they didn’t necessarily want to swap seats, sit back, and be entertained by dancing Americans.  Instead, I think they just wanted to go to bed because they had to get up again at 4:30 in the morning to make our breakfast.

But our group of fellow Americans felt differently. They earnestly believed that the staff was craving American culture and dancing, and by God, they were determined to provide it.  What kind of entertainment did we perform, you ask?   Well, the first musical ensemble was a stirring rendition of “Yankee Doodle Dandy.”  Then, another beautiful melody called “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”  But that was not it! Seven songs later (including another cultural meme  “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer,” which was prefaced by an explanation of Santa Claus, and yes, with our hands on our hearts, “God Bless America”)  the final straw was when 15 white Americans sang “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” to a group of black Africans.  That was our cue to leave.


Mark and I managed to get out of two of these performances by sneaking out before dessert, but we have to admit we did stand up there a few times (against our will).  The last show was pretty funny because by then the Americans were busy rehearsing throughout the afternoon and planning an even more elaborate performance.   I normally don’t mind hearing people singing (Did I mention that three of them were active local theater performers back home?) but when they were practicing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” on our six-passenger light aircraft and there’s nowhere to hide, Mark and I were about to lose it. The trip leader caught wind of it and actually took some of us aside and said that our performance had to be short because otherwise the staff would need to be paid overtime to watch it. Ha!  Finally, proof that the staff had to be paid to suffer through this torture!

Mission Impossible

The highlight of the trip for Mark was the thrilling morning he piloted his drone helicopter over Victoria Falls.  Even before he took off, the “mission” was already a bit dicey because it was unclear if he was actually allowed to fly there.  Not only does Victoria Falls lie across the international border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, there are frequent ultralight and helicopter flights hovering over the falls that he could technically interfere with.   But you know Mark. When it comes to rules in a gray area, you could say that is his niche.  His first flight was picture perfect, and after a few minutes he had a crowd of locals and tourists huddled around his screen watching the footage he was taking above.  But perhaps he got too cocky, because even though the battery was low, he pushed it a little longer than usual.  When he knew time was up, he looked in the air to find the drone so he could navigate it home, but it was unfortunately behind him in the direction of the sun. It was impossible to see, so he tried to use the “force” to bring it home. The force was weak in him that day.  Eventually the drone “emergency return to home” feature clicked on (he had never had to use this function) and Mark just prayed that it would come home. He frantically scanned the skies and then watched on the screen as the helicopter descended quickly and crashed into the jungle.  He had no idea where it was.

The drone sends out a signal when it crashes but only until the battery runs out, so he knew he only had a few minutes. He started frantically running around the waterfalls searching for it, but no luck.  After about twenty minutes he was about to give up when a local boy ran up to him and said, “Did you lose an airplane?”  The boy had seen the direction in which it crashed.  Mark said, “Let’s go!” and the boy ran with him down the path for a half-mile. Then the boy jumped into the bushes and came out a minute later with the drone. Mark was so relieved and happy!

After that, he flew one more mission (this time even more aggressively, but without crashing!). Here are the fruits of this labor of love:


It was very special for us to spend time together, especially for Mark and his mom.  They had some “moments” driving around in the bush while listening to songs from The Power of One on their headphones (I think they both were crying).  Those two have a special bond and I just love seeing how much they love each other.  One night his mom really opened up, telling us stories that we had never heard before about her childhood and her time in Vietnam.  She told tales ranging from partying with her fellow officers in Nha Trang to white-water rafting the class IV rapids of the Colorado.  It is no secret where Mark gets his zest for travel and adventure.  What was also terrific was to see her enthusiasm for exploring renewed, and it was clear that this trip just strengthened her resolve to seek out more adventures (hopefully with us by her side!).



Africa_MikaPics-20Africa_MikaPics-22 Africa_MikaPics-21



(Oh yeah! And I think the best thirty seconds of the trip for me were during this zip line over the Zambezi!)

So even though this trip wasn’t what we had hoped for, there were definitely some great moments that we will treasure, like the wind in my hair as we drove around in the open jeep scanning the horizon for animals, the fun of learning bits of each new language, sundowners overlooking silhouettes of African Baobab trees, and monkeys peering in my tent during nap time. Thanks for reading, everybody!

The End!

The End!


Posted by on September 16, 2015 in Uncategorized


Mark’s Indonesia Photo Blog

If you’ve read Michaela’s blog, you already know that this was the trip of a lifetime. She covered everything above water, so I’ll try to cover everything below. If you want to skip the wall of text about my new obsession with photography, just scroll down to where the pictures start!

So I’ve always wanted to learn how to take underwater photos, but the cost of equipment coupled with the ridiculous amount of required information and my general laziness made it all equate to a simple shrug of the shoulders and a “someday”. I just wanted to snap my fingers and bypass all the research and studying. My attitude changed when I booked this Indonesian live-aboard dive trip and knew I’d have plenty of time to learn the basics. We were spending 6 weeks in Cozumel (diving area in the Caribbean) a few months back when I met a girl that broke down underwater photography and camera types for me in a really simple 15 minute conversation. She explained what features were important for a novice like myself and which features were required at the expert level and thus could be avoided. I raced home, found a good site that sold an underwater package including the camera she highly recommended, housing (to make it waterproof), strobe (external underwater flash), red filter (to make videos less green/blue), and all the pieces to make them talk and play nice with each other. $1,000 later I was in business. Thank you Christina!

In preparation for all of my downtime between dives, I downloaded every article I could find on the internet about underwater photography (we would be offline for the two weeks on the boat).  Of course I only got through two articles the entire trip!

When we arrived on the Arenui we were introduced to the crew and guests. The main salon had several camera desks, which are areas to work on your camera, recharge batteries, store ancillary equipment, and so forth. The two main photographers immediately began setting up their equipment and it was obvious that Larry took his photography very seriously. His setup looked like an octopus with arms, lights, strobes, buoys, and lenses reaching out like tentacles in every direction. I was surprised to see how fast he set everything up and that he then directly went topside to just relax.  I assumed he would have fiddled with it for hours.

I introduced myself and we immediately had a connection. I asked some general question about photography to get the conversation started while trying not to sound like a complete novice. He was so volunteering of information that I conceded quickly that I didn’t know the first thing about photography. It was the equivalent of a Pop Warner kid asking a NFL veteran for some pointers. He gave me some excellent advice from a very broad and large perspective. Some of it didn’t make complete sense at the time, but it did as the days melted away. For example, he told me that this was a very special trip we were on (there were several places we visited and sites where no one had ever dove) and that I should make an effort to enjoy and absorb every aspect of it, as opposed to obsessing about my camera, my photos, my photo editing, etc. I had to chuckle a bit to myself on the inside since that definitely would not be my sort of problem. I hadn’t spent more than the 15 minutes with Christina and the hour buying the gear online and had no intention of doing much more than pointing and shooting and learning from there.

I didn’t take the camera on our first dive just to make sure all of our diving gear was sorted out. On the next dive I only used the camera to shoot video since it is much easier to get decent footage than still photos. The cruise director, Edu, noticed that I had the same camera he did and he showed me a few settings to make the videos a bit sharper and get the color correct underwater. It worked out beautifully that he had the same camera because over the next 2 weeks he taught me technical and minute things about my specific camera that I never would’ve figured out on my own or through reading articles. I was impressed with the video quality and it tempted me to stay away from the daunting still photos, but on Day 2 I started taking pics with a flash diffuser (a piece of plastic that covers the built-in camera flash to spread out the light more).

This is a very simple way to take stills since you can just shoot in auto mode and have the flash set to always fire, just like on land. The problem is that the flash isn’t very strong and it always fires in the same direction so that you can’t manipulate the lighting of the shot. The other problem is that when the flash is firing in the same direction as the shutter, the particles in the water reflect the light which causes the famous “backscatter” in the photos where it looks like it’s snowing. I was still pleased with the photos, but could realize that it was time to start learning the strobe.

That night I asked Edu to help me set it up. He gave me some great tips that I understood immediately and many others that were beyond my current scope. Most camera/strobe combos have a feature called TTL, or Through The Lens, which basically means auto-mode. I had specifically made sure that the camera/strobe combo I purchased had this feature as I had been told that the strobe was one of the more complicated apects of the process and any automation like TTL to remove another variable would be wise for a novice.

Well, Edu would have none of it and insisted that I shoot the strobe in manual mode, along with all the other camera settings. I could already tell that I was hooked and decided to just use all manual settings, no matter how annoying and poor the shots would be. Edu gave me the basics of f-stop, shutter speed, ISO settings, and strobe settings. Those are the four basic variables that a camera shooting in auto mode would do on its own. Of course those four settings were three too many for me to focus on underwater and I would therefore just concentrate on one variable for the entire dive. I could see the effects quickly and had hoped that adjusting that feature would become second nature. Of course that would be too easy! I would constantly get flustered and mess up the settings. I therefore practiced taking shots above surface around the boat to try and learn without the added variables of being underwater.

The usual routine became that I would come up from a dive and show my results to Edu. I would scroll over the crappy shots and try to show him my “good” shots, but he immediately asked, “Hey, what are you doing? I want to see all the photos!” I explained that most of them were either crap or literally unrecognizable. He explained how each photo has the meta data displayed on it so that we could see the four variable settings. He would then explain why that particular combo of settings were inaccurate for that shot and what they all should have been to get the ideal photo. In the extremely rare case where the photo looked decent, he would likewise explain why the settings worked for that particular photo.

This is when the learning curve really exploded. I would take in all this invaluable information and apply it on my next dive. After every dive we would repeat this learning process and hone the shots. Because of the nature and physics of diving, we are limited to about 60 minutes of dive time and require 1.5-2 hours on the surface to burn off the excess nitrogen in our system before we’re allowed to dive again. This “surface interval” became my classroom and as each dive passed, the errors became fewer and fewer.

By the fifth or sixth day, I had the variables under reasonable control and Edu moved the lessons towards artistic composition. He showed me the photos in the classification books lying around the salon and explained that they were decent photos, in focus, correct color, and one could easily identify the subject in question. He then showed me some of his personal photos as well as his favorites and it was quickly obvious how the photographer can use many more tangible and intangible tools to create something closer to art than merely an identification photo.

A good example is that many of the underwater photos that leave the viewer awestruck have a black background. I was always a bit annoyed that these Nat Geo photographers had the audacity to remove the creature from its home and shoot it with a black background. How naive! What really happens is that the shutter speed is set so that it is slow enough for the flash to arrive at the subject and light it up, but fast enough that the ambient light from the background never makes it to the lens, hence a black background.

On the occasions when Edu was busy during the surface interval, I would pick the brains of Nic (Nichole), Indra, or Larry and ask them a question or two about a photo that I had just taken that was “off”. They each had their own artistic style and while their answers were similar from a technical standpoint, I could quickly see how many different ways you could shoot the same subject and get widely different outcomes. Indra usually gave me advice on the equipment itself and how to get the most out of it. Larry continued with his large scope views and would give sage advice that would put a nice umbrella over the whole project. Oftentimes the three boys would get ahead of themselves and start on tangents that would fly right over my head. That’s when I would have to make a list of notes and take them to Nic to have her translate what the hell they just said. She would patiently explain the nuts and bolts of the photos that the boys would sometimes gloss over.

I had downloaded photoshop before I left New Zealand and figured it was time to throw this piece into the mix as well.  With the guidance of my instructors, I realized that what I really needed was a program called Lightroom.  Luckily I had a similar program and started editing my photos at night.  This was much closer to my wheelhouse since my life is spent on a computer and I had used similar software back in my engineering days at Anatech.  I quickly learned what parts of the photo could be polished and which could not (i.e. focus).  From that point on, I could “see” the photo before shooting underwater and would try to concentrate on the most important variables: light, focus, composition, and shooting angle.

That first night I cracked open the software, I became utterly consumed and stayed up til 3am!  Boat life starts early, so I was a zombie through little breakfast.  Edu took one look at me and chuckled since he knew what had happened.  Remember at the beginning of this blog when I scoffed at Larry for telling me not to obsess about the photos and camera and to just relax and savor the entire trip?  Yeah, right!

When I returned home and shared my stories with my sister, who is a professional photographer, she was floored that I got so much specialized attention. She explained that she goes to paid workshops and conferences and usually leaves with some additional information and tips, but nothing like having your own personal quiver of professors that analyze your work all day long. I was truly blessed that these four took the time to help me work through the growing pains and find the fascination on the other side. Thank you!

OK, so now to the fun stuff – the photos!

Well, before any photos, let me start with a video.  We pulled up to a tiny island with a village of about 60 inhabitants to drop anchor and spend the night.  As was customary, we sent over a couple of our Indonesian dive masters to ask permission to dive their waters (the villagers often times mistake our boat for a fishing vessel).  The chief was intrigued and took our boys to a secret pinnacle a mile offshore that he said was teaming with big fish.

We were giddy with excitement about what we might find in this new location.  Since it was surrounded by deep water, we were diving the edges of it hoping to see something big pass by and we did indeed see a large marlin (amongst many other great things)!  The currents picked up, so we hooked into the reef, which meant each of us was tethered to the reef with a six foot rope so that the current couldn’t sweep us away.  I was situated in front of my buddies, so when this eel came up out of the reef I had no warning.  Since my anxiety level was already high at this virgin location, I really thought he may want to do more than check me out.  The problem was that I was physically attached to the reef and couldn’t go anywhere!


One of the most interesting creatures in these waters is called a Nudibranch.  Nudi refers to “naked” and branch refers to “lungs”.  Their lungs on the outside of their bodies and they usually resemble a tail.  There are over 2,000 different species and they are all extremely unique in appearance.  Most of the ones we observed were about half the size of your finger, but they tend to stand out due to their striking colors.  This is a defense mechanism from predators and warns them that they are poisonous and distasteful (although few are actually poisonous).  Check out their lungs in these photos…

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While the nudis rely on bold colors to warn off predators, most other tiny creatures rely on camouflage for survival and without the help of our unbelievable guides, we would never find 99% of them.  Some are creatures that you’ve never seen or heard of before and look like something from the Star Wars cantina scene or the Avatar forest.  Others are normal creatures with a twist.  Here is a crab, but no ordinary crab.  This is a Decorator Crab.  They stick plants, anenomes, sand, and anything else from their environment to their bodies for camouflage…

ArenuiJPGs-97This Decorator Crab’s camouflage of choice is anenomes.  Can you see his purple and white banded legs?  His eyes perched on his pink head looking towards the upper right corner?


Now here is a sequence of photos of a very special animal…

ArenuiJPGs-114This photo above shows a typical sea fan (with Indra in the background). Commit the size of this to memory.


ArenuiJPGs-115arrowSo now in this shot above I’m much closer to the sea fan. I am using the technique described above to shoot a black background for a more dramatic effect. Do you see the creature in this photo?  Go ahead and click on the picture and it should give you a larger version.  I’ve put a small scale in the corner to give you an idea of what size the creature is.


ArenuiJPGs-115circleDid you find it? It’s a Pygmy Seahorse! This guy is less than a centimeter, or about the size of your fingernail. Scroll back up to the photo with Indra to see how small those seafan’s fingers are.


ArenuiJPGs-116circle Do you see the seahorse in this photo? Not only are they masters of camouflage, but if they are sitting with their profile in view (as in the previous picture) they are more easily spotted and therefore in greater danger. Just when you think their camouflage can’t get any better, whenever another animal approaches them (like a photographer, for instance), they turn 90 degrees so that they just become a line. Trust me, they are incredibly difficult to see and equally difficult to get a good shot of.  Talk about a kid who won’t smile for the camera!

So these guys are one of the top 3-5 things that we had slated to find on this trip. When we finally saw one, I was quite nervous to get a good shot without hurting him. I had the camera lens literally one inch from him while I was floating in a three dimensional space with currents, all the while being aware that if my exhale bubbles hit him it would most likely blow him into deep space. I got several great shots and was ready to explode when I got to the surface to analyze my treasures.

I immediately showed the shots to Edu and he kindly sculpted an answer somewhere between “congratulations” and “you’ve got a lot more to learn young grasshopper”. While the shots were decent (not the ones from above, but some close-ups), they weren’t in perfect focus. Of course a macro lens that magnifies would’ve made things easier, but he described the technique of how to shoot these guys in manual focus. Basically, the camera is focusing on a limb from the seafan or even the wrong part of the seahorse (you always want the eyes in focus). The “trick” is to use manual focus, keep shooting until you get the correct focus, and then commit that distance to memory. Then start swaying in the same rhythm of the seafan and seahorse in the current to maintain that distance and wait until he moves into a good position, then shoot! I only had one more dive to test it out as this was the last site to most likely see them, and indeed we didn’t see any others the rest of the trip.
ArenuiJPGs-118bFinally a profile shot in focus!


ArenuiJPGs-276You can see that he is “pregnant”. The females transfer the fertilized eggs to the males who carry them until live births.


Another great camouflage creature is the flounder. This is a fish similar to a halibut that lies flat on the sandy bottom and has evolved to have both eyes on the same side of its head. This video below shows how well they conceal themselves.

As if that camo isn’t good enough, the juvenile version is much more amazing – they’re transparent!  I have to apologize as that is my pointer that I am gently pushing under the sand to make him move.  I now know that is a no-no!


The Lembeh Sea Dragon is also on the top 3-5 list of creatures to find on our voyage. While nearing the end of one of our dives, I could sense a lot of excitement and commotion in the water (which only means divers signaling each other with small sounds and swimming quickly). I knew that it was something very special but also that I was the furthest from it. That meant that all of the other divers would take turns to see it and I would most likely be last in line. I immediately ascended to save as much bottom time as possible and slowed my breathing to conserve air. After another 20 minutes I started swimming to where everyone had been, but since surfaced – including all my dive buddies that hadn’t noticed the “commotion”. I passed Nic on the way and it was amazing how much excitement she conveyed to me through a mask and all that gear. She was stoked for what I was about to see!

My divemaster Ronald led me to the dragon and I had to really study the area before I could ascertain what I was looking at. This is another type of seahorse with a tail the width of a few human hairs.

ArenuiJPGs-128My first view with Ronald’s pointer (click on the photo to make it larger and you can see the tiny face of the seahorse just to the right of the pointer tip).

ArenuiJPGs-129circleAnother shot showing its brilliant camouflage

ArenuiJPGs-131Lembeh Sea Dragon


There were so many amazing creatures and I have a story for nearly all of them, but I think the simplest way to share them is by throwing them all in a video. Hopefully you can watch with the full screen settings (click the box in the lower right). Warning – it’s about 12 minutes long, but I save the best shots for last!


Posted by on March 12, 2015 in Uncategorized


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Forgotten Islands, Indonesia

For the final leg of this adventure, we headed to Indonesia for two weeks of diving off a liveaboard ship through The Forgotten Islands of the Banda Sea.

We started our visit in the town of Saumlaki on Yamdena Island in Indonesia.  Not quite sure where this is? Neither were we.  It took us four flights from New Zealand to get to this tiny island, and each stop seemed more remote than the last.  Saumlaki is the capital of the Tanimbar Islands, a chain of islands on the eastern side of Indonesia separating the Banda Sea and the Arafua Sea.


This town is not on the beaten path whatsoever.  The tiny airport is still being built, and when we landed we had to walk through a small building still covered in scaffolding.  Later, as we wandered around the town, we were surprised by how untouched this place was from the western world.  As we walked by the shops no one called out to us or invited us to shop.  They just stared at us, curious and smiling.  It was clear that tourists don’t usually come through town.



Soon we realized no one spoke a word of English, and it hit me suddenly—I hadn’t learned anything in Bahasa before coming.  I felt so useless not being able to even call out a greeting or say thank you.   Luckily we finally were approached by a young man named Augustine. He told us he was the English teacher in town, and would we mind if he walked with us to practice his English? We were both thrilled to have him as an interpreter and guide. His English was rough but good enough and we had so many questions. He walked us around town and down to the harbor, where many small boats were tied up for the night. He explained that they all came to shop in Saumlaki from smaller neighboring islands.  As we walked along the harbor he noticed his uncle’s boat tied up. He and some cousins had traveled four hours to get there so they could buy basic supplies like rice and meat.  They would spend the night at the harbor and then travel back the next day. They were just settling into “bed” on their little boat.

Later Augustine joined us for dinner and helped me make a basic primer for learning Bahasa.


me and Augustine

Everyone else at the hotel was curious about us, too. The hotel was full of Indonesia government workers. We never figured out what they were doing there, but they all wanted to take pictures with us and teach me Bahasa.  I made lots of friends there. It was my last day of being “connected” to the internet and so I was sitting on the deck trying to finish all my work, but I was constantly interrupted by all the men who wanted to know who I was, where I was from, etc.  Of course I realized it was time to shut my laptop!


You might already know that Indonesia is primarily a Muslim country, and we did hear the call to prayer from the Mosque nearby.


But we soon found out that we were in the Christian part of Indonesia.  During the two-week, 500-mile sail across the Banda Sea, every island we were on and almost every person we met was Christian.  This part of Indonesia is dominated by Christians, which was another surprise for us.


After a night in Saumlaki we excitedly boarded the Arenui, our home for the next two weeks.   The Arenui is a Phinisi, a classic Indonesian wooden sailing vessel built in 2007, designed to carry 16 guests and 22 staff through the waters of Indonesia for liveaboard diving tours.  It’s the ultimate way to go diving, and we knew how lucky we were to be on board!

My first glimpse of the Arenui

My first glimpse of the Arenui

Here’s a day in the life aboard the Arenui.  We wake up early and have a light breakfast in the dining room (fresh baked croissants, tropical fruit and coffee for me) and then put on our wetsuits and jump in the tender boat for the first dive with our guide and two other dive buddies.  We dive in amazing waters full of crazy creatures and pristine reef.  We jump back in the tender boat and head to the ship, where the staff take care of our gear (they even pull my wetsuit off my body) and hand me a warm towel. Then we wander into the dining room for “Big Breakfast,” which we ordered before the dive. I usually had fried noodles, eggs and pancakes. Mark was partial to the french toast and omelets.  Breakfast is barely finished and it’s time to get our wetsuits back on and jump in the tender for Dive 2.  Each dive is in a new location (the ship moves while we eat or sleep so that we never dive the same reef twice).  Then it’s lunch, another dive, snack time, another dive.  There may be time for a massage on the top deck or some down time to read or chat with guests, and then it’s dinner, which is a casual but elegant three-course affair under the stars upstairs in the Sky Lounge.  Could we get used to this? Yes!


Our room, after turn down service


Warming up in the sun between dives


Massage on the top deck


Sundowner time


Dive briefing in the dining room


Some down time on the deck


View from the captain’s chair


A little sail on the last day


hmm….I think I spent a lot of time on that deck!


Beautiful teak everywhere


Pretty much every sunset was spectacular


Dinner served at the Sky Lounge



Mark in his element


Mark and I were constantly giggling after each dive, thrilled and amazed at how fantastic every moment was.    Neither of us got tired of diving, and Mark was one of only two guests who did every dive. (I passed on the final night dive.  I was about to rally and “force” myself to go, but then I thought, “You’re only doing it so you can say you did all 42 dives.” That seemed fabricated, so I quickly opened a beer to disqualify me from diving any more that day).

The marine life and creatures were superb.  The Banda Sea is very different from the Caribbean, where we’ve done most of our diving.  The diversity and health of the coral is striking. In the Indian and Pacific Ocean region there are over 1400 species of coral, whereas in the Caribbean there are about 70. Mark is going to post his own blog with his photos, but here are just a few to give you an idea.

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The highlight of the diving for me was at Gunung Api, a volcanic island in the middle of nowhere known for just one thing: sea snakes.


These gorgeous snakes live on land but hunt in the ocean during the day, and if you jump in the water anywhere near the island, they swim right up to you. They are curious and want to check you out, and will even swim around your legs or through your fingers. Except watch out, they happen to be lethally poisonous. Yes, that’s right. I did a double-take when Edu said this to us, until he explained that their mouths are so tiny they can’t get their teeth around your finger. The snakes can bite you on the earlobes and between fingers, so everyone wore a cap on the first dive and kept their fists closed, but loosened up on subsequent dives

When we first got in the water we were all a bit hesitant.


But right away we loved how interactive and playful they were!

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To really appreciate how beautiful and spectacular they are, check out some of the video that Mark shot:


A big part of the trip for Mark was falling in love (or shall we call it an obsession?) with underwater photography. He had dabbled in it before, but for this trip he bought a new underwater camera and housing set-up.  He honestly didn’t know much about photography before this trip, but he definitely improved about one-thousand percent over these two weeks!

There were several experienced underwater photographers on board, including Edu, the cruise director, and all of them graciously took Mark under their wings and helped him learn at record speed.  After each dive they would look over his shots and explain to him what he did wrong, how he could have done better, and within a couple of hours he was underwater again applying what he learned.  He absorbed everything and I think that made his teachers want to work with him more. By the end of the trip they were calling him, “Daniel-San.” The highlight of his new found fascination with photography was the last night of the trip, when the crew voted on the best underwater shot of the trip.  Mark’s sea snake photo won and I think it was a victory for Mark and all his gurus.


Mark with Ronald, the best dive master ever, and Edu, his photography mentor

We also really enjoyed our topside time, getting to know the crew and the other guests. We made fast friends with Chris and Izzy, a couple from Temecula who were also our dive buddies.  By the end of the two weeks they felt like old friends and we made plans to see each other again in Mammoth and Rosarito.


Ronald, our dive guide, was fantastic, too!


He was a master at finding tiny creatures. We would laugh underwater watching him comb through a sea anemone with his pointer, and then reach for a finer more delicate pointer, and then eventually reach for his magnifying glass. I don’t know HOW he found all the things he found, but here are some shots of some very tiny creatures!


shrimp on a bubble coral



camouflaged soft coral crab


We had a lot of fun with Edu and Nic, the cruise directors/dive masters, and Wawan, a younger dive master who we bonded with big time.


Nic and Wawan


Edu with a frigatebird. He rescued it from drowning and then released it after a day on board.

We really enjoyed getting to know all of the other guests on board, too.  On the first day everyone was a bit quiet and I felt everyone checking each other out, wondering if the group was going to get along and mesh well. We knew it would be very close quarters for 14 days, and I think everyone was a bit nervous.  But after about 24 hours we all breathed a sigh of relief–it was a perfect group that got along really well!

Mark and I both commented about how interesting everyone was to us.  We learned so many different things from each of the guests.  For example, Larry and Leslie from New York have been on dozens of liveaboards and had tons of experience diving around the world, so we picked their brains about all this and learned a ton.  Jack and Chan from Malaysia were an eccentric, friendly couple who entertained us with funny stories (and Chan’s enthusiasm for the diving was contagious).  Ken and Annette from Denmark were on their third trip on the Arenui, so they convinced us we had found the best ship. Though already in their late 60s, they impressed us with their adventurous spirit. After the Arenui they were off to Borneo to camp in the jungle with the orangutans.  Keith and Mari were another sweet couple who happened to live not that far away either–Riverside!  There was a honeymoon couple from Australia, Cheryl and David.  Indrah and Youke, the couple from Indonesia, taught us so much about this part of the world.  They were so kind and generous, and in fact, when we mentioned we were headed to Bali after this trip, they said, “You must stay in our villa!” They arranged for their cousin to pick us up at the airport and bring us there, too!


Mark, Me, Izzy, Chris, Anto the Steward, Annette, Ken, Indrah, and Youke



Leslie and Larry celebrating Larry’s 1000th dive with chef Putu


Chan admiring a parakeet in the village


David and Cheryl on their honeymoon


I also dove into the language of Bahasa and found the challenge of learning it addicting and satisfying. It is a very simple language with minimal conjugations and no verb tenses and once I figured out the basics I was determined to master it. Ok, so I didn’t master it, but I really enjoyed trying! A couple of the crew members plus Youke and Indrah, our new friends from Jakarta, helped me fill my notebook with vocabulary, and I had fun making everyone laugh with my broken Bahasa.

Anto and Putu, the steward and chef, showing off Putu's carving skills

Anto and Putu, the steward and chef, showing off Putu’s carving skills

Along the way we stopped at several villages. The first was on the super remote island of Dawera.  Before we went diving the first day some of the crew went ashore to pay respects to the chief and ask for permission to dive near the island. This chief was surprised and touched that we had asked for permission.  After a while he said, “You guys want to see lots of fish?  I can show you a good spot.” So that morning the captain and the chief went out and marked the spot where an underwater pinnacle hovers under the surface at about 60 feet. A few dive masters popped down to check and it out and they were stoked to see so much life in this secret spot! We dove there that afternoon and it was amazing!

Just a peek at how gorgeous these waters are

Gorgeous waters at Dawera Island


Visiting the villages was really cool. The first one on Dewara island was such a unique place.  We were impressed by how orderly the layout of the village was.

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The government had granted funding to build small paved road all the way across the island. It wasn’t wide enough for a car (which was fine since there weren’t any cars on the island) but it kept the island orderly and neat and the villagers road their bicycles up and down it.

ArenuiJPGs-27 Less than 100 people live on the island, and I think they all came out to greet us.ArenuiJPGs-101 ArenuiJPGs-117ArenuiJPGs-270ArenuiJPGs-272ArenuiJPGs-279ArenuiJPGs-280ArenuiJPGs-282ArenuiJPGs-283ArenuiJPGs-22

On Alor island we visited another village. This is a bigger, busier island with lots of shopping and ferry traffic.


The Lateuvi village was awaiting us to perform a traditional show.  It was a bit contrived, but I enjoyed the dancing and the singing.

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I got to use my Bahasa with the women and had so much fun making conversation with them. They also got a kick out of Mark and I trying beetlenut (all of the other guests declined, but I laughed when I looked across the circle at Mark chewing it at the same time I popped some in my mouth). It’s sort of like chewing tobacco and supposedly gives you a high, though we didn’t feel anything. All it did was make our teeth red.


Another highlight for me was diving at Nil Desperandum, an island in the middle of the Banda Sea known for schooling hammerhead sharks.  Now part of the excitement came from the build-up by Edu.  Edu is a Spanish divemaster who spent many years diving in the Red Sea, where he became at expert at diving with hammerhead sharks.  Hammerheads are not common in the Banda Sea except for this one tiny island, and the Arenui only passes by this island twice a year, so he was really excited to look for his “spirit animal.”  During the dive briefing he gave us very detailed instructions on how to behave. We were not supposed to make any noise, no quick movements, and if possible, even lower our heart rates. The hammerheads would know we were there as soon as we jumped in the water, but it was up to us to be quiet enough for them to come by and check us out.  The plan was to drop into an area with a lot of current, use a reef hook to grab on, and just sit and wait for the sharks. If enough hammerheads showed up, Edu would direct us to swim out to the big blue and if we were lucky, the hammerheads might school around us for awhile.

For some of the divers, this seemed a bit boring, especially because during the first dive no sharks showed up.  We were all just literally hanging out waiting for them.


But there was something about the chase and the wait that I loved. We dove the same spot four times, and each time we were rewarded with a little bit more action. On the second dive a hammerhead swam by us just once, pretty far away.  On the third dive two swam by, still far away. On the last dive one circled us for a good while, one time swimming right up to me, giving me the thrill of a lifetime. These guys are huge and very prehistoric looking. We never got a school to circle us, but I just loved every minute of the hammerhead hunt! Sorry, no good pics of this though.

For the last night I helped organize for a goodbye song to thank the crew. Youke helped me choose a traditional song in Bahasa, and Wawan and I practiced on the deck a few times to prepare.

I convinced the rest of the guests to learn the song and perform for the crew. It went perfectly with just one hiccup—I missed the party.  I blame it on the tequila shots before dinner. Sadly I was passed out for the whole thing.  It looked like a lot of fun, and the crew told me they were so touched by the guests singing that a few of them shed a tear.  And apparently the crew’s goodbye performance was quite entertaining, too! (They took a bit of a different angle!)

party Arenui_M4-4 party_mark_chris_anto   ArenuiJPGs-237 ArenuiJPGs-238

It was definitely a trip of a lifetime, but hopefully our lifetime will make room for a few more trips like this one.  Mark and I confirmed once again that life at sea is utter perfection, and we truly treasured every moment of our time on the Arenui.


our last meal at a local warung in Ende, Flores

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Coming soon! Mark will write the next blog and include all his best photos with stories and descriptions. Here’s a sneak peek:



Posted by on February 6, 2015 in Uncategorized


Seven Great Days in New Zealand

After a great visit in Hawaii, we headed off to New Zealand. As soon as we landed we were feeling the Kiwi love.  There’s just something about this country that draws us right in. We checked in for a couple nights in Queenstown at the Larchhill B&B.

Lake Wakatipu

Lake Wakatipu


The view from our room


Queenstown in the sunshine


We freshened up, went for a quick run, and then headed out to “See if this place has a pub!” We had couple drinks on the waterfront (Steinlagers!) and then dinner at the Irish Pub next door. We were feeling super stoked to be back in New Zealand where everyone is so friendly, everything is so easy and well-organized, and we were getting ready to meet up with all the Coast-to-Coasters!


The next day we took the Gondola up to the Skyline and from there hiked up the Ben Lomond track.  The plan was to run it (six miles) but it was too steep and the footing too slippery.  We made the saddle but turned around before the peak because of the mud.  I have to say I was probably most excited about the Jelly Belly store at the end of our run, and bought a box to get me through the next week.

The Rail Trail started the next day. At 10am we arrived in Arrowtown and got a look at the crew.  We had met a few of these crazy Kiwis two and a half years ago thanks to reconnecting with Erica, one of my best friends on the track team at UCSD.  She and her partner Rob were kind enough to indoctrinate us into the group during their annual trek to Tuapo, a beachside getaway for a week, and we loved the fun, athletic group right away. We also enjoyed their especially Kiwi peculiarities.  Anyway, fast-forward a couple years later and here they were gathering again together, this time in large quantities! 47 of them signed up for the three-day Rail Trail bike trek, in which we all rode on mountain bikes for about 100 miles along the old railroad track though Central Otago, South Island, New Zealand.

So that morning we pull up to the Arrowtown Apartments where the motley crew was gathering.  We spotted Grubby right away, maybe because he was wearing a cow suit?  He gave us a warm welcome, repeating, “Good effort, guys, getting here.”   I was just looking around soaking in the group, made up of a collection of Kiwis from all over New Zealand, a good amount of South Africans, and the Hong Kong contingent (plus us, the only two Americans).


Ok, let me first try to describe the South Africans.  Now I have to admit that I’ve had a personal prejudice against South Africans for a long time because the ones I know are a bit arrogant, selfish, and to be honest, a bit racist.  But right away I discovered (alas!) there are some really great South Africans, too!  Tanj and Jill were really friendly right off the bat, and then we met Jane, my new idol.  Ok, so this woman is maybe 52 and in killer shape. Once I touched her arm to hand her a beer and I was stunned at how rock hard she was.  She was an animal on the bike and often rode the track twice because she would go back to “Check on the girls,” or “See how Howard is coming along.”  She was also so sweet and welcoming to us. Finally, she partied like a rock star. She outlasted me every night (ok, not that hard to do, but still, I was impressed!).

Go, Janie, go!

Go, Janie, go!

Then there are the Hong Kongers.  Martin is Grubby’s friend and the two of them were celebrating their 50th (the reason, in fact, for this event).  Martin is South African but lived for many years in Hong Kong and made lots of friends there with the British ex-pats who live there, who, by the way, call themselves FILTH (Failed in London, Try Hong Kong).   So about 10 of them made the trek to Queenstown just for this event.  They were all great, but our favorite was Tim. On the first day we sat together in the van for a three hours and had very proper conversation about travel and culture, and I thought he was just a very stoic British guy, until a few beers got into him.  We soon realized he was a wild one.  Just as an example, one morning they all went for a run around a lake in the middle of Arrowtown and he decided to do it “sans” clothes.  Not sure why.


Way to clench, Tim!

We also enjoyed meeting a lovely couple from Zimbabwe who had moved to Auckland after the civil war in their country.  They were so sweet and Ash told me lovely stories of growing up on the farm where her mother would take in injured wild animals including a lion, and monkey, and a mongoose (in their house!).  She said the monkey and the mongoose grew up together and were inseparable, and the monkey would ride the mongoose around the house!  Wow!

Ok, they don't always look like this!

Well, they don’t always look like this!


We also met a lot of Kiwis who had travelled from all over to come to this Queenstown event.  Like Howard, Grubby’s accountant who freakishly knew everything about American sports. Dunfey was another character and a half, and Mark tried to keep up with him by closing down the party every night (though Dunfey always managed to outlast him).

From left to right: Dunfey, Tim, Mark, Mel, Badger and me in front

Clockwise: Dunfey, Tim, Mark, Badger, me and Mel in the middle


As an aside, many of the crew were fascinated by Mark’s job as a poker player.  By Day 2 most were referring to him, simply as The Gambler. At one of the inns Mark found a piano and began playing, and I heard someone saying, “Who is playing the piano?” and the other said, “It’s the Gambler.”  I had to laugh.

The bike part was really fun. It wasn’t as challenging as Mark had expected (just flat wide trail riding) but the second day wore me out (I probably shouldn’t have stopped at that pub midway and had two honey beers).


As usual, Mark was such a stud that on one of the legs he opted to run instead of bike.  So all 46 of us rode bikes while Mark ran and beat most of us!


I did have a few “moments” riding by myself in the middle of New Zealand, going by millions of lovely fluffy sheep and riding through some tunnels that were completely pitch black.  What a great way to meet and bond with so many new friends.


me and Pinche (that’s really his name!)

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I had a mini-melt down on Day 2 when we arrived at our hotel, which was actually a little guest house, where ten of us where supposed to share one bathroom.  Mark tucked me into bed early and I powered up the wifi, turned on the electric blanket, and recharged my batteries (yes, this means Facebook time).


The last day was another 30K and then we were done!  Felt fantastic and what a feeling to arrive back in “civilization.” Grubby and Martin arranged for us all to have a lunch at a winery in Central Otago (Bannockburn). Now we’re talking.  We walked into a beautiful place with huge windows overlooking a lovely vista, delicious antipasti, and endless bottles of wine.


Turns out Central Otago is known for their Pinot Noirs.  My favorite wine. Perfect. This is when Tim from Hong Kong came in handy. He was good at making sure we never ran out!


After a delicious lunch and a great buzz we drove back to Arrowtown and checked into the Millbrook Resort.  We couldn’t have planned this trip better because each leg kept getting more and more luxurious.  Millbrook is absolutely gorgeous.  It is surrounded by mountains, creeks, and a lush golf course, and our room was awesome with all the little luxuries like a big tub and heated tile floors.   There we finally meet up with Rob and Erica and Markos, who all just flew in from Auckland.


So what’s next? Fancy Dress Night of course.  Grubby and Martin decide for no particular reason that we will all dress up in costumes and hit the pubs in Queenstown. You know you don’t have to tell Mark and I twice!  So I whip out my Black Swan costume (yes, I chose to use precious space in my suitcase to bring the costume instead of my dive gear!)  and Mark goes as a character from The Fifth Element and we show up in a taxi wondering if we’ll be the only ones dressed up.  Luckily, no.

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Super fun crazy night that of course led to Mark asking to wear my bra. Not sure why? But I was happy to lend it to him.


Around 1am I was fading at the bar so I told Mark I would  find my way home and gave him the “hall pass” to go big, which he gladly accepted.  As I was leaving one of Grubby’s cousins offered me a ride, which was great.   However, by the time we got to the Millbrook I could tell he was tired and he pulled up to the gate saying,  “Here you are…” I knew it was a ways down the road to the hotel, but I didn’t want to be rude and ask him to drive me all the way there, so he dropped me off and there I was in the pitch black night about a mile away from the hotel reception.   And remember, I’m wearing a tutu and tights—that’s it!  And still a bit drunk. It’s so dark (and I’m wobbly). I can’t see the road and keep stumbling onto the grass.  Luckily it’s easy to feel it through my ballet slippers, so I managed to stay on the road the whole way there.  When I finally got to Reception I stuck my head in the window looking for someone to let me in and I think the poor night clerk had a heart attack when he saw my eyes staring in on him.


The good part was, that night on the long walk I finally spotted the southern cross, a constellation shaped like a cross only visible in the southern hemisphere. I have been trying to spot that thing for years. That long, cold, dark but beautiful walk is one I will never forget.

Meanwhile, Mark made a solid effort with the late-night crew and crashed on a couch at Grubby’s place with a few of the other guys.  The next morning the guy dressed at Elvis woke up on the couch next to Mark and remembered he had to go pick up his wife at the airport.  Since all he had was his Elvis costume, he put it back on (wig and all), dropped Mark back at off at our hotel, and drove straight to the airport. I bet his wife just loved getting picked up by a hung over, unshowered Elvis!


Elvis sandwiched between Rothy and Dunfey. No good can come of this!

The final day was the main event, a formal dinner and dancing party at the Mount Soho Winery with the whole group (which by now had turned into 150 people).  It was terrific.  Amazing venue, amazing food, ridiculous amounts of delicious wine.

And did I mention, full on debauchery? It made the fancy dress night look like a warm-up (and I suppose it was).  I danced with every man there and even got carried around on the shoulder of Grubby for a dance (this apparently is his signature move).  Speaking of Grubby, I have to give him props for inviting not just one but FIVE of his exes to the party.  This guy likes to keep in touch!

So we danced and partied til midnight until the bus picked up all our drunk asses. On the way to the hotel the bus stopped at a pub, and it took all my coaxing to keep Mark on the bus, reminding him that the next morning we would begin the 24 hour trip to Indonesia. Luckily he listened to me but that didn’t mean we weren’t majorly hung over the next day!

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Such a great week. Again, we are truly grateful for the warmth, laughter and fun that comes with everyone we have met in New Zealand. While I try to stay away from stereotypes (surely everyone  in one country can’t possibly all be this wonderful?) again and again I am struck by how much I enjoy the lifestyle, personality, culture and attitude of New Zealanders! If only it were tropical, we would be living there instead of Mexico for sure.  Thanks again to the Kiwis for welcoming us and sharing such an amazing week with us!

Thank you, Erica!!!

I will miss my buddy! When’s our next adventure, Erica?

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Posted by on November 23, 2014 in Uncategorized


First stop, Makaha

The blog is back!  I have been meaning to add another post for, like, two years, and I really don’t have a good excuse why I haven’t. But alas, here I am finally writing a new one.

Since it had been a long time without any exotic adventures (mainly just Mexico and Mammoth with a bit of BVI sprinkled in between),  Mark and I decided to plan a big trip.  It covered a few different spots on the globe, but our first stop was Hawaii to visit my dad. So let me tell you a little bit about that.

A couple of years ago my dad fell and hit his head, and has never been the same since.  He suffers from brain damage and so his mind is fuzzy and he is confused. He’s been living in a nursing home on the remote west coast of Oahu and his wife visits him frequently, but I know he misses his kids and I was really excited to spend some time with him.

When Mark and I arrived at the Mahaka nursing home, all the staff was excited to see us. Dad is clearly one of their favorite residents. It might be because he is a lot more active and personable than some of the other patients.  It might also be because he flirts with all the nurses.  But it’s a good thing because they take really good care of him.  As always, right away he recognized me and seemed so happy to see me.


Dad and I at the Army Recreational Center (the only beachfront joint in Makaha).


He seemed in great shape and spirits, and we had a really nice three days together. We took him out to lunch a couple of times and also to our condo.  He had an amazing appetite and finished everyone’s plate plus extra ice cream.  I told him about our life in Mexico and showed him all the pictures.  He seemed to understand most things, and he kept saying, “I’m glad you’re happy.”


He still has a very wry sense of humor, and Mark and I were surprised by his wit.  Most of his jokes were self-deprecating, but he also told us stories about the other residents (some true, some invented).  As you can imagine, some of the people there were wandering around quite confused and sometimes ornery.  Like Gladys. She is a frail little lady with long gray hair that wheels herself around the halls, barking out in a scratchy “Red Rum” voice to the staff, “Iced tea! Iced tea! Can’t you hear me?”  She’s sort of frightening and one time she cornered me in the hall and grabbed my hand and I have to admit I ran to get her an iced tea!   Dad kept leaning over to me and whispering, “That one is nuts.”  It cracked me up.


Dad and Sunny


When Mark and I weren’t spending time with Dad, we did a little exploring around Makaha and we just loved this side of the island.  It is a world away from the craziness of Waikiki, where Dad used to live.  Makaha is all the way on the northwest coast, just before the road ends.  The community is known to be poor and “rough,” but we found the people so friendly and welcoming. Mark went on a run through the lush valley and every single person he passed called out to him to say, “Hello!” or “Good Morning!”  And the beaches are so quiet and beautiful. Definitely a wonderful place to visit.


Makaha Valley


View of Kaena Point, just a few miles from Dad’s place


On the second day I gave Dad a surprise. Before the accident, he had just finished writing a novel (his first).  He shared the draft with me, but it never made it to an editor.  I figured it was time to have it published.  I had it printed and brought him a couple paperback and hardback copies. He was shocked. He said, “I wrote all these pages? How many pages are there?” (134).  Then he asked, “Is it any good?”  I laughed and told him it wasn’t bad.  He signed a copy for his wife and gave it to her, and I think he was proud and pleased. We left the other copies in his room and told him we would see him in the morning.


When we arrived again the next day,  a couple of the nurses came up to me and said, “We saw your dad’s book! We want to read it! Where can we buy a copy?”  I said, “Seriously? Sure. I’ll get you one.”  But they said, “You don’t understand, everyone wants to read it. The whole staff is asking for one. We love your dad and we can’t wait to read his book.” I couldn’t believe it. He already had a reader base!  I told Dad the news and asked him how much we should sell his book for. He was sort of wavering between five and ten dollars, and he said I should get a cut, as his agent.  Before I left I ordered 20 more copies to be sent to the nursing home.  Hopefully Dad’s making lots of money!

It was hard to say goodbye, but the visit was so rewarding for me and I think for Dad, too.  We will be sure to be back again soon.

Here’s a sneak peek from the back page of Dad’s book.
about the author

Another blog is coming soon! Next stop, New Zealand!


Posted by on November 16, 2014 in Uncategorized


Who would have guessed? We like sailing.

It took more than ten years to make this trip happen, but finally Mark and I are here in the British Virgin Islands sailing around for a week, along with three of our New Zealand friends. Today is the last day on the catamaran and it’s time to sum up a few life lessons.

The crew: Matt, Mark, Erica, me, and Rob

The crew: Matt, Mark, Erica, me, and Rob


First of all, grabbing the mooring ball is not the easy task it appears to be. Every one of us tried it and every one of us screwed up at least once. If we did it right the Kiwis would give us an “Achieved,” but if not it was a “Not Achieved,” and we got a lot of grief.

Second, apparently when you are on a boat, things fall overboard if you don’t tie them down. We are getting better at remembering that.

Third, even though we are all seasoned drinkers, we still are able to get properly pissed and hung over just like the younger whippersnappers!  Willy T’s is a floating bar in the middle of the cove off Norman Island, and on Day 2 we headed over there after a delicious dinner on board.  Willy T’s isn’t the classy joint the name connotes, and in fact encouraged women to take off their tops by displaying TVs with photos of others who had. (Don’t worry, we didn’t).  I wish I could tell you what happened over there, but for some reason I can’t remember a thing.  The next day no one even made it up on deck until mid-morning and we were all moving very slowly. After coffee and breakfast Captain Shane wanted to know if we were finally ready to let out the sails and turn off the motor. Rob had been itching to get the sails up, and here was his chance. Unfortunately, none of us were at our best.  Mark, Rob and Matt assisted with the sails and Erica did some steering (all I could do was nap on the deck). Rob was green for most of the ride and Mark ended up chumming for fish once we finally arrived.  It was a bit ugly, but we made it.

Fourth lesson, this is the life! We felt like the rich and famous as we cruised up to each mooring, hopped over for drinks or shopping on an island, and then lounged luxuriously on the spacious, comfy trampoline over the hulls.  We kept saying things like “Who do we think we are?” and “Is this for real?”

Pulling up to Saba Rock Island, just around the bend from Richard Branson's Necker Island.

Pulling up to Saba Rock Island, just around the bend from Richard Branson’s Necker Island.


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Here are some of the highlights:

First night’s dinner under the stars at Waterlemon Cay in St. John

Waterlemon Cay

Waterlemon Cay

After dinner we noticed a school of giant tarpon swimming under the boat so we jumped in

After dinner we noticed a school of giant tarpon swimming under the boat so we jumped in


Swimming and snorkeling at the Indians and the Caves at Norman Island

Erica and me looking for lost treasure in the caves

Erica and I looking for lost treasure in the caves


Indiana Jones-ing around the Baths and Devil’s Bay at Salt Island

See the Guiding Light, our catamaran, in the background?

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Matty’s action-filled birthday!  It started at 7am when we set sail for the 25 mile crossing from Anegada (most of which I slept through). Then we jumped off  the boat for a healthy 600m swim to Sandy Cay and a short hike around the island.


This was my favorite island–totally uninhabited, beautiful white sand, and turquoise waters!


Then we made a quick sail to White’s Bay where he proceeded to swim straight to the bar and order two Soggy Dollars, which would have been quite clever if that was actually a name of a drink rather than the name of the bar, although he did pay with the notorious soggy dollars from his pocket. This bar happened to be the home of the Painkiller, one of our favorite drinks of the islands.  In fact, Erica had three in that one sitting alone!


On our way to White’s Bay


Not too shabby of a bay!

Matty then kayaked around Great Bay before we went ashore for dinner.  We had a fantastic meal of conch fritters, pizza, tuna, and scallops at Corsair’s.

sm31 After dinner we ordered three 170 proof absinthe drinks that we were cautioned could be hallucinogenic, though none of us reported any of that but plenty of inebriation.

Apparently absinthe is an acquired taste

Apparently absinthe is an acquired taste

Finally we ended the night at Foxy’s in the early morning hours dancing to reggae music (along with one of our new local friends and his 30-year-old dreads), drinking copious amounts of alcohol, and crashing one of our neighboring boat’s party.

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Actually, there’s a bit more to that night than we actually shared with our Captain. Around 1am Erica and I were ready to head back to the boat, and I thought I could cleverly “borrow” the dinghy and get us back there on our own.  So I jumped in and miraculously figured out how to get it started. I yelled to Erica to jump in, but the practical woman she is, she said first show her I knew how to drive in a circle, then she would get in. It was a wise test, and I failed. I must have flooded the engine because all of a sudden it wouldn’t go. Luckily I was still in shallow water so I jumped out and dragged the dinghy back to the dock with my hands. We headed back to the bar (I was sopping wet) hoping none was the wiser. An hour later when we all stumbled back to the dinghy, we were giggling and praying that the captain wouldn’t notice. He did comment that someone must have been “messing” with the line, and we braced for it, but then the dinghy started right up and we all kept quiet!

Another highlight was the 15 mile sail to Anegada in 25-30 knot winds cruising at an average speed of  9 knots on a beam reach (I actually slept through the sail, but Erica tells me she steered for the whole trip) and then a 3 mile run on the white sandy road to the windward side of the island and lunch at Cow Wreck, which was completely empty due to the difficulty of sail that only our crew could manage.



Spectacular sunset at Anegada

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Swimming at Turtle Cove with our new best friends, the turtles (Rob and Matty got a bit intimate with them, as a matter of fact)


Rob with a turtle

shane_sm09Great run/swim/tour of the old Sugar Mill in St. John by Captain Shane

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Fantastic snorkel at the Cow and the Calf rocks where we saw an eagle ray, an eel, a turtle, an intimidating barracuda and then a bull shark!

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Endless inside jokes, including “eat an onion Mate”, me setting world sleeping records while at sea, deciphering between which of our tour mates was the “bloke” of the relationship, that the sheep-shaggers refer to us Yanks as Seppos (Is there any surprise that Kiwis refer to Americans as “Septic Tank Yanks” or “Seppos”?).  However, we know that Kiwis come from a land where men are men and sheep are nervous.

As for the six of us, I thought we made a great crew with very compatible interests and personalities.  Captain Shane was always calm even when our sailing skills didn’t impress him, and he was a patient teacher and excellent guide.  Erica’s sweet smiling face was a pleasure to wake up to every morning, and she looked after all of us like the mother she is.

last_sm03 We also were impressed to see her get more comfortable in the water, and I’ll always remember watching her dive down to the wreck below. Mark as usual was the all-around sportsman and I think everyone enjoyed watching his many exertions, and then later seeing him match them with the number of beers each night.

This looks awkward, but he nailed it!

This looks awkward, but he nailed it!

Matt’s even, mellow attitude kept us all calm and collected (and was a great balance to my Type-A personality), and we all relied on him for important information like the name of a song from 1962 or what year a certain country got its independence. last_sm01

And then there’s Rob.  He could have his own reality show I think.  His subtle humor had us all in stitches most of the time, and as I sit here I can still picture him shaking his head as he watches another sailor going by muttering something like, “That fella tacked a bit early, didn’t he, Cap?”


He’s probably saying something like “Jesus, Mary and Joseph, get a look at this place.”


As for me, I have to say that in all my travels, this might be one of the best trips yet. Michaela is a happy, happy girl!



Posted by on April 25, 2013 in Uncategorized


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Posted by on April 6, 2013 in Uncategorized


It’s the most wonderful time of the year

Hello out there! Anyone still follow this thing?  I’ve been meaning to update this for awhile, but I guess I’ve been having too much fun!  Here’s a quick run down of some fun events in the last two months.


Halloween and Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead) is a very festive time around Akumal. The Americans rally for a huge party at La Buena Vida, and costumes are mandatory.  Here are some pics:


Magnum PI

La Catrina

La Catrina



But just as fun was the Dia de Los Muertos party our friend Jennifer hosted out in her jungle house.  Jennifer has had her fair share of pets over the last ten years, and her pet cemetery was the perfect setting for a spooky evening full of altars, candles, traditional foods, and yummy Mexican hot chocolate.

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Sian Kaan

We squeezed in one more overnight trip this season and headed down to Sian Kaan, a nature biosphere about 50 miles south of Akumal.  We had heard for years how horrific the road was, but we sure didn’t expect it to be as bad as it was!

We only made it about 100 meters in our little car before we realized we better turn around.  We headed back to Tulum and rented this jeep.

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But two paddleboards don’t fit very well in a jeep, so we pulled over to re-adjust.  We brilliantly figured out a new position that would avoid them banging on my head, so we celebrated with a few refreshments. In all our excitement, though, we left one of the paddleboards on the side of the road as we drove off.  We drove back to look for it the next day, but alas, it was gone.  That was our first paddleboard, and we really mourned the loss.  May she rest in peace!


Our beloved paddleboard on a sunset paddle a few months back

Anyway, we arrived at Xamach Dos, which is about halfway down the peninsula, and met the owner’s daughter Michelle, who was running the place by herself.  She didn’t know we were coming and didn’t have much to offer in the way of food, but said we could stay in a bungalow and then we all ate ham sandwiches for dinner. It was a great, mellow night and we really loved the “off the grid” feel of the place.  I also enjoyed all the dogs and cats!


Visitors in Akumal

Our last two weeks in Akumal were full of visitors and festivities. Shannon and Venti came first, and we had so much fun showing them around, diving in Cozumel, and teaching Venti about swimming and paddling.

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November 8 was an exciting day in Akumal for us and the four other competitors in the first annual Akumal Triathlon.  It was DJ Bob’s idea, and it was so much fun. Mark set up buoys out front for the swim, and then we biked and ran around the road.   We also had a good group of spectators.  The race was a blast and then we had a fun beach lunch afterwards. Mark took first and I took second, so we currently hold “fittest couple in Akumal” honor. Let’s hope we can keep that for next year!


The next arrivals were Bob and Tina Dameron, Mark’s old boss and his wife/our real estate agent.   We hadn’t seen them in over five years, and we had such a blast with them. Of all our guests, they might have liked Akumal the most. They were snorkeling or paddling every day and took their happy hours very seriously, too.


Thanksgiving in Pacifica

Suddenly the summer was over and on November 15 we both flew stateside. Pancha and I went to Pacifica and had a great time with Mom, Meg, her family, Adina, and some other friends.

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Mission Beach

After a couple weeks up north I headed south to meet up with Mark in San Diego. We moved into our Mission Beach rental for the month of December, and have been really enjoying the boardwalk beach life.


Nick with his new Mark-look-alike haircut

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Meg’s whole family came down last weekend and they seemed like Mission Beach locals after only a few minutes:


We’re here til New Years and then we set up our pad in Rosarito in January. We plan to be back and forth between Rosarito and Mammoth all winter. Until then, Carpe Manaña!



Posted by on December 21, 2012 in Uncategorized


Isla Mujeres: No Shirt, No Problem

So, what do you pack in a bag when you plan to go away to a little island for a day and a night?  The basics, right? A change of clothes at least.  Well, as we boarded the ferry to Isla Mujeres yesterday I looked at Mark and noticed, as usual, all he was wearing were his flip flops and board shorts.

“You did bring a shirt, right?”  

“Oops,” he said.

So we spent a whole day and night in Isla Mujeres and somehow he got by without a shirt. If you know Mark, this probably doesn’t surprise you!

I suppose this was the right place to forget his shirt!

Here are a few more pics.

Avalon Hotel. Beautiful location at the northern tip of the island, totally surrounded by water. As usual, we stumble upon a great low-season last minute bargain!

We spent the next day cruising the five-mile island in a golf cart–fun 24 hour getaway!


Posted by on October 13, 2012 in Uncategorized



We’ve been in Cozumel six nights already but I’m still feeling giddy like it’s the first night of vacation.  I love it here!  Cozumel is an island just east of Playa del Carmen, a quick two hour trip from Akumal including driving and ferry time. We have been here a bunch of times, and every year it becomes easier for us to get here and settle in.

The first year, we spent a whole day driving completely around the island going door to door to hotels asking if they allowed pets, and none of them did. Finally, a little hotel called Villa Blanca took pity on us after I broke down into tears, and said we could stay one night with our dog. After they saw that Diego was a quiet, well-behaved dog, they said we could stay on, and we ended up living in that tiny hotel room for a month.  The next year we realized the hotel had superior suites for just five dollars more, so that trip was much more comfortable. Then the next year we found Costa del Sol, a small group of homes in the south of the island, which we enjoyed for a few years.

This year we decided to try out the new condo buildings in the north of the island. The advantage with the north is that it is a lot closer to the town center, and the accommodations here are brand new high rise towers with amazing infinity pools, modern units, and of course beautiful views. But what is also great is that people actually live in the north….it’s not just all-inclusive hotels.  However, the one disadvantage is that it is a longer boat ride to the good diving in the south.

Anyway, we both had to laugh at how easy things were for us this time.  We decided last minute to head out here because there was construction happening at our condo in Akumal. In a few hours we had packed, booked a condo, loaded up our car with all our toys including two paddleboards and Pancha’s crate, caught the car ferry to Cozumel, drove off the ferry, met the condo manager who gave us our key, and we were moved in! So much easier than the first few years!  And oh my god the condo is amazing. Here are a few photos and a video.

A few hours after we got here the security guard called up and said, “Look out your window.”  There was a school of dolphins swimming by. So beautiful!

So far I’m totally sold on the north side of this island. Pancha and I go for walks every morning and evening, and there are a ton of locals out exercising and walking their dogs. The wide sidewalks are lined with trees so there is lots of shade, and there are even kilometer markers for the joggers and cyclists to measure their workouts.  This island is full of exercise-junkies.  Next week they are hosting a half Ironman, and in November is the real Ironman, which attracts a lot of athletes from all over the world. But the coolest part is to see all the locals exercising themselves. This is not typical for Mexicans, and it reminds me a little bit of New Zealand.  Like New Zealand a lot of the joggers cruise at a very modest pace, but I love that they are out there just doing it. Very cool!

The town center is really lovely, too.  Built around a typical Mexican plaza, the centro has lots of restaurants, bars, and street performers, and once the sun goes down everyone just hangs out there.  Old people dance in the plaza, young people hang out on benches, little vendors sell food, and of course there are lots of dogs everywhere that keep me entertained.

We found a wonderful new dive shop located just a few doors down from our condo. The dive master Fernando is a really friendly guy from Acapulco, and the operation is very organized and professional.  I was so excited to dive that I couldn’t wait for Mark, so the first day I dove without him while he caught up with work. This is not typical for me….I used to be so nervous to dive and would never go without Mark. But again, it’s this vacation-giddiness that has overtaken me!

Finally, we can’t get over how friendly the people are here. Cozumeleños are a lot different from those that live on the mainland, mainly because this island has been inhabited for more than a hundred years (compared to the coast that was developed for tourism just about 40 years ago, and all the workers were recruited in from the neighboring state of Yucatan).  Thus, the Cozumeleños are a distinct group of people that have lived here for generations. They are a bit more educated, more cosmopolitan, and enjoy a higher standard of living than those on the mainland. Many own their own businesses and steady tourism keeps everyone comfortable and happy.  And they are just so darn friendly! We’ve already met so many people who have welcomed us. One waiter gave us an open invitation to dinner at his house and spent time carefully giving us directions to where it was located.

And we are lucky to be here today, September 16, for Mexican Independence Day.  This date marks the start of the Mexican War of Independence from Spain, over 200 years ago.  This is what happened. On the night before, at 11pm on September 15, 1810,  Mexico’s “Father of the Revolution” Miguel Hidalgo shouted the Grito, a cry of patriotism and independence, in order to rally the people and encourage them to revolt.  Since then Mexico celebrates this night by re-enacting the Grito. This is done all over Mexico in every town center.

Last night we headed down to the Palacio Municipal early to enjoy the festivities. Several streets were blocked off and there was a huge mobile amusement park, carnival games, several stages, professional dancers performing traditional dances from all the states of Mexico,  bands, and tons of food and beer vendors.  The place was packed with what seemed to be everyone on the island: families, kids, old people, one month old babies, etc. We had some delicious tacos and enjoyed a few beers while sharing a table with a New York couple who hooked us up with shots of tequila out of their backpack.

Then the Cozumel mayor stood up on the balcony of the Palacio Municipal and made the pronouncement.

First he listed the rights of all people in Mexico, and then he began the grito, which was basically a salute to the revolutionaries, “Viva Hidalgo!” and “Viva Allende” and each time the crowd would repeat back “Viva!” Then he brought it closer to home, “Viva Cozumel!” and “Viva Quintana Roo” (our state), and again the crowd cheered back “Viva!”  Finally he ended with three cheers for Mexico: “Viva Mexico! Viva Mexico! Viva Mexico!” Then he rang the bell and a spectacular fireworks show began. Here are a few photos to capture the evening!

After the fireworks show we wandered around the carnival and were entertained by the rickety rides and unusual games.  One man was auctioning off a whole warehouse of merchandise in a matter of minutes.  We watched him get hundreds of people to buy random junk instantaneously. Mark was fascinated!

We are already talking about how maybe we need to spend more time in Cozumel, and put this spot into our regular rotation.  For now, we are enjoying it! Viva Cozumel!


Posted by on September 16, 2012 in Uncategorized