Extravagasia

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Call of Saigon



We arrived in Saigon on May 1st, International Workers' Day and the perfect backdrop for setting foot in our second Communist nation. Vivid yet outdated to our post-USSR eyes, "hammer and sickle" banners and bold red flags with a single gold star hung from trees, buildings and lightposts, fluttering in the hot wind next to Nokia, Nivea and Nike ads. Interesting....communism and capitalism coexisting peacefully on one pole! Seeing the hammer and sickle is still strange to me, especially when it's flying above a street with unmistakable French architecture packed with people in conical hats and bustling with business. It's just not what you expect communism to be.~> read more

 



But that premise bodes perfectly for Vietnam -- the country is just not what you expect it to be. And it's great!

Because Andy and I stayed in Backpackers Budget Hostels in New Zealand and shared common living areas like the kitchen and bathroom (sigh...glad to be done with that and back to guest houses and hotels!), we talked with a lot of travelers and gathered recommendations and reflections on Vietnam. Most of it was good and we were excited. Tales of dynamic cities, towering pagodas, custom-sewn clothes, oodles of noodles and friendly yet cunning people danced in our heads as we cleared the stony-faced customs officials. In the airport, we were on our guard and pressed hard for our cab driver to use the meter. But that proved no problem, and as we zipped by the May Day/Labor Day decorations, we began to dissect and digest the surroundings of Saigon.

Or, as the government likes to call it, Ho Chi Minh City. Saigon was re-named post the "American War" (that's right...it's NOT called the "Vietnam War" here!), after the country's most revered leader-communist-philosopher-patriot-cult of personality. Ho is everywhere in Vietnam! And his image, which adorns everything from money to mopeds, is a funny cross between a white-haired Mr. Miyagi, Colonel Sanders (KFC recently opened here since Vietnam is no longer embargoed) and a Vietnamese peasant. In fact, we heard a funny story about someone else noticing the similarity between "Uncle Ho", as the people fondly refer to him, and KFC's Colonel and voicing this to a Vietnamese person who tartly responded, "No, Ho Chi Minh was a general!!!"

Besides lipstick red political banners and the face of Uncle Ho gazing wisely at you everywhere, Saigon sports a long, slow kiss of the French. Once the heartbeat of of "Indochine", France's colonial folly in the 19th through mid-20th centuries, Vietnam has the best of Parisian city planning and baguette boulangeries. Every walk in the city includes the smell of crusty French bread, the curvy shadows of art nouveau entryways and a few fountains and circular plazas that remind you only of Paris. Tall, impossibly skinny buildings the color of Easter candy fill Saigon, their decorative balconies sagging under the weight of wet and dry laundry, and their narrowness reflects French tax laws which based the fees on width instead of depth or height. Of course, the clever Vietnamese figured a smart way around that law to house their large families without paying handsomely by building tall (5 -7 floors of curvy stairs) instead of wide! In the city center, there's even a French-built Hotel de Ville that makes you swear you should be searching for the peaks and points of Notre Dame the distance, but then you look closer and see guards in vivid pea-soup green uniforms with red trim and a gold star protecting the doors and remember this is a Communist nation.

However, from where Andy and I sat in Saigon's sidewalk cafes and rooftop bars, on motorbikes and park benches, this doesn't look like or feel like a Communist nation. Capitalism is alive and both free enterprise and free thinking are afoot. There's an open show of religion; you see Cau Dai cult figures, Catholic crucifixes and Buddhist altars on every block. The Bourgeois are out and about, and wearing knock-off Bebe and Diesel! Yes, people wear conical straw hats in Saigon...but while commuting to work at multinational corporations and shops instead of rice paddies. The West inspires what's hot: posters of David Beckham, Mischa Barton and Coldplay adorn stores and all Vietnamese children in the internet cafes happily instant message on Yahoo. Yes, there are bread lines to satisfy our archetypical image of Communism, but it's for a baguette made with "La vache qui rit" cheese, fresh vegetables and some mysterious, terrifying pate--and the Vietnamese are eating this for breakfast or lunch as they dash about their busy, modern day on motorbike after motorbike after motorbike. (check out the link at the end of this message to see just how many there are!)



Saigon is especially vibrant at night. To walk its wide streets, and bravely cross them by taking a deep breath and diving out into the sea of motorbikes, is to see Vietnamese life in it's most pure form. Families sit on their haunches or on the tiniest plastic step stools (that look like a foot rest to me), barely levitating above the cracked sidewalks, gathered around low tables heaped with noodles, rice and grilled meat. A real wood fire in a silver metal bucket sizzles nearby, usually heating a banged-up kettle for coffee or instant noodles, and the whole family of grandparents, parents, children and babies chatter happily while clacking chopsticks against teeth and petite porcelain bowls. The air smells of singed flesh, warm fruit, Chinese herbs, motorbike exhaust and cigarettes...the staples of life in Vietnam...and you see nothing but smiles on both the weathered and fresh faces of Saigon's residents when walking late at night, the time when the work is done and family time begins.

As a whole, we're finding the people in Saigon are extremely eager to do business and make either dollars or dong, day or night. They're friendly, smiling, sweet and without malice toward us, even though we carry the navy blue US passport. They RUN to get change for the big bills the ATM dispenses to enable our purchases, always try upsell and bargain hard for every dong. In fact, bargaining with the Vietnamese is hilarious as you wrangle, dicker, barter and haggle over a price on a calculator in spirited, smiling fashion. Then, when the Vietnamese see your final price, they feign heat stroke and shock and must sit down because your price is so low and they have to feed their children and this price simply won't put food on the table...blah, blah, drama, drama, drama. But, then we start to laugh and they laugh, and we start again on debating a price and usually reach something fair.

But, you simply MUST calculate your restaurant bill EACH time to make sure the frequent errors, which are never in your favor, are corrected. So Andy, Mr. Math, must always be on his toes! It also seems a price isn't a real price until you've seen what the locals paid and then what you're charged. I guess when you're at the heady crossroads of capitalism and communism, something's gotta give. Andy and I find what gives is the clarity and permanence of pricing for those of us already familiar with free enterprise. However, so far, Vietnam's vibrant atmosphere makes that pale in comparison.

More photos: http://bitjug.com/gallery/Saigon

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Things We Fear Upon Return...

Andy and I are talking more and more about "re-entry" to reality, and discovered we each have a few funny fears (beyond the basic "where will we live? will we find jobs? are my shoes still safe in storage?"...okay, so that's just me!)that stem directly from our months of travel in Asia.

Here's a list of things we're afraid of:

1) Entering a store, whether Nordstrom or Jamba Juice, and immediately bargaining over an item's -- any item -- price. "5 dollars for a Large Grape Escape? ... ha, ha. I'll give you $2.50, best price!" At this point, we're so used to reverse sticker shock...sticker prices are always negotiable, the reverse of what's true at home...that I could see us making fools out ourselves at the register.

2) Ignoring nice people on the street, many of whom we know, saying "Hello! Hello!" to us since that's what all the touts do here and we're able to walk by them these days without flinching or responding.

3) Enduring massive depression when we see the limited options of street food...What??? Only hot dogs? No pad thai, sticky rice~> read more

 or grilled corn with lemon salt!?!...it's gonna be bad.

4) Ordering with our hands in a slow motion manner that ends with us holding up a finger and saying, "one order" -- pronouncing "one" as a three syllable word
"o-n-e" -- since mistakes have been made and we've ended up with two mango shakes, two plates of samosas and one puzzled server.

5) Experiencing momentary panic attacks when we unconsciously feel our chests for our travel pouches and realize we don't have our passports on our bodies.

6) Driving and crossing the street. At this point, we truly don't know left from right, red from green, stop from run-for-your-life since everything is subjective (who really stops their moto for red lights? which country's pedestrians ever get a 'walk' signal?) and changes country to country, no matter who colonized it!

7) Hoarding small change since no one ever has enough "small money" to break our ATM-generated big bills and make change for cab fares, bottled water and street food.

8) Thinking metric and being slow to understand common measurements as we convert naturally to kilos and kilometers and celsius, then doing the math backward to calculate it into inches, pounds and farenheit. Stepping on the scale will be a real downer too!

9) Dehydrating ourselves on purpose before getting on any form of public transportation so we don't have to use the public restroom facilities, i.e. the squat toilets with mothballs for freshness or the open troughs of urine with ice to cool its temperature and smell.

10) Unconsciously taking our shoes off outside of important public buildings and religious structures. The upside of this, however, is that we'll no longer need to tip the "shoe wallahs" who 'watch' our shoes when we enter temples, tombs and monuments.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Singapore Swings...and India lingers

Andy and I had exactly 24 hours in Singapore. And no guidebook. Trying to cut corners where possible, we opted not to purchase a book (we'll save that money for Bali!) and instead wing it via websites and information counter maps.

I honestly didn't have a great desire to visit Singapore because I had an image of a tropical, modern Gotham and heard it has no soul, but lots of heat. But, thanks to Andy's surfing wizardry and masterful airline research, it was cheaper for us to fly to Singapore on Tiger Air, stay over for one night and then fly to Ho Chi Minh City than to fly directly via a major carrier from Bangkok so we added it to our itinerary. We even had some spending money available for our stopover thanks to the fare savings, which we'd need in this expensive-for-asia city.

I knew of the charming Raffles Hotel, whose famous Singapore Sling revolutionized cocktails, spicy food stalls and a modern airport complete with sleeping berths and duty free shopping to die for. But as it turns out, there is more to it, some things even a little charming, and we were both pleasantly suprised by our 24 hours in Singapore. Indeed there are modern towers of concrete and glass, but in between, there are petite colonial buildings with Palladian windows and wooden shutters painted in a riot of colors.~> read more

  Singapore also has a quaint harbor area where we rode a "bumboat", which is a primitive, wooden tug boat once used to ferry cargo from the big ships in the harbor up the river. Each boat has giant eyes painted on its bow for good luck per a Chinese myth, and the grizzled old man who steered our boat looked Malaysian but the person who sold us our tickets was Indian. Singapore is decidedly diverse, and it's been awhile since we've been somewhere that reminds us of the racial, cultural melting pot that is America.

We did all of our exploring on the SMRT, their subway and train system, and I was shocked to see it was cleaner than many of our hotel rooms on this trip! How do they do it? Andy realized how immediately and pointed to signs that stated fines for nearly everything from littering to eating inside the train, and then above ground, warnings for jaywalking and abusing emergency exits--any of the aforementioned could cost you between $500 and $2000! Unique and somewhat "Big Brother", but it works. We didn't see any trash any place ... until we got on the line headed for "Little India".

I'd read Little India was one of the most colorful quarters of Singapore to visit, so after a little mall hopping (Asia is the only place where Andy enjoys a mall more than I do because they're exploding with electronics and watches, two of his favorite things), we headed out for a bite of tikka masala. It was quite a sensory journey, however--more so than anywhere else we visited on the tiny island nation. On the subway, bits of trash crept up around us as we neared "Little India", along with the smell of hot oil and onions, plus colorful hordes of humans in moustaches and saris crowded us more than anywhere before. Andy and I looked at each other in surprise and silent communication..."Can you believe the change? It feels a LOT like India! Did you see that moustache? Look at that fabric!"

Once we stepped above ground, we had to exclaim to each other. "HOLY COW!?!" was all we could think. Around us, seeping into our senses and pores, was the most realistic, somehow-exported piece of India you could ever imagine! Gazing at the all-male crowds loafing about and talking, the deafening noise level of Hindu music and horns, the posters of elephant-trunked Ganesh and garish signs in gaudy colors, the complete lack of women and smells that ran the gamut from hot peppers to stale piss, we knew we could be nowhere else but India.

Though thousands of miles away and months ago in our travel memories, India's chaos and contradictions were suddenly around us again. It was copmletely surreal. Andy and I walked around in a daze, assaulted by the smell hot dosas and fresh turmeric while fending off eager men selling us gold and knock-off clothes. Yet we were completely absorbed in how authentic, how potent Little India felt to us. Somehow we were suddenly transported from Singapore to Jaipur or Mamallapuram, and every sense in our beings was dialed up to full volume. I realized in living, breathing color that in comparison to New Zealand, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and Singapore, there is nothing like India. India invades your senses and soul like a virus. But once you're cured and far away from it, some tiny part of you wants to be sick again just to remember what it's like to be confronted by everything humanity has to offer, from the best and brightest to the most squalid and horrific. In India, you must take the bad with the good, but for me it remains a complex, mysterious place that polarizes my senses, feelings and experiences like nowhere else in the world.

...Oh yes, the Singapore Sling was good -- perfectly pink color and way too sweet -- but Raffles' Long Bar where it was invented is right out of Indochine...all dark teak, swaying rattan fans and tunic-topped servers who float about noiselessly. The incongrous part, however, is that they serve bowls of peanuts and in this posh hotel, you munch away and toss the empty shells on the beautiful darkwood floor. And the street food was interesting -- I've now had bean curd pudding, sugar cane juice and an awesome fried coconut and pandan dumpling that would make doughnuts taste like a stale baguette. The airport shopping wasn't so great, however -- the Singaporeans don't like people to "browse" and try on creams and perfumes, and were all over me like the cheap suits I saw for sale in Little India.

Don't be Krabi; there's plenty to eat!



We overnighted in Krabi, Thailand on our way between the Andaman coast of Thailand and Vietnam. It's a port city without too much to offer travelers aside from cheap accomodation (we stayed at the "city hotel" which was a very good value), and a good airport. However, we arrived off the longtail boat (astoundingly loud narrow wooden motorboats, which have much more bark than bite (they're slow!)) hungry, so we struck out to find a place to eat. As we walked along the waterfront, we found an excellent option!

Think medium sized parking lot (by American standards) with about 100 hot dog stand carts lined up in three rows. Between and outside these rows are many, many folding tables and cheap plastic chairs. Here, they're not selling hot dogs. Oh no. Some stands just sell one item, such as Tiffany's favorite dessert, fresh mango with sweet sticky rice. Other stands, only slightly larger, offer a full Thai menu that's bigger than the Red Robin's menu! Most dishes are under $1, unless you order giant prawns or something else really unusual.

As we walked around, we heard a now familiar sound ... Thunk - squish - Thunk -squish - Thunk - squish ... in rapid sucession.~> read more

  This is the sound of green papaya salad (which has no leafy greens). The green papaya itself is similar to cucumber cut in long strings, but it's mixed with fish sauce (better than it sounds, it's used for salty flavor), a few dried shrimp, chilies, lime juice, palm sugar, crushed peanuts, tomatoes, and a longer, zestier version of the green bean called "snake bean" in english. It's all mixed up in the proper order with a careful touch in a large sort of mortar and pestle, the pestle made of wood and the mortar (which is the bowl) made of clay, like a flower pot with a gently rounded shape. As the salad is mixed, a spoon is used to pull up the wet mixture from the bottom (creating the squish sound) and the pestle is then Thunk-ed back down.

We gravitated toward this sound (we love the salad), and saw that the woman making the salads (and sounds) was as well-worn as her mortar and pestle. I asked her for a som tam (green papaya salad) using the thai words, perhaps with miserable pronunciation. She knew what I wanted. I pointed to the large jar of chilies, held up three fingers. The seasoned salad-maker raised an eyebrow. This is one of the spiciest thai dishes, but most farang (westerners) would be challenged by just 1 of these "mouse dropping chilies" which have a fire as big as they are small. She could see I knew what I was ordering, and tossed them in. She gave them 10 solid mashes as I was watching, which caused me to rethink my choice of "3" chilies, since we had mashed them far more gently in our cooking class! I also pointed to the dime-sized dry shrimp, and made a small pinch with my hand to show her I just wanted a little (too many = too fishy for me). Beyond these instructions, I let her work her magic with the recipe and touch of the pestle.

We were directed to take some flimsy seats at a flimsy table on the sidewalk. A few minutes later, my som tam was delivered. I took a bite. Western food doesn't often combine amazing freshness (as in a salad straight from the farmer's market) with fiery hot spice, but it's become one of my favorite things. Three chilies pounded hard produced devlish heat, but I loved it! This was the best som tam I've had yet, and we've had it everywhere we've been from Bangkok south. Only one thing could pair with this explosive salad, and that's an ice cold beer.

Fearing the worst, we asked if beer was available. Of course! What tiny 1-entree food stand on the sidewalk wouldn't have it? Furthermore, it came in 650ml bottles (nearly two cans worth) and was some of the coldest beer we've had in Asia. It's hard to get really cold beer over here, since refrigerator space is at a premium, if the establishment even has one. How they can get frost on the outside of the bottle at a sidewalk place is beyond me; perhaps dry ice is the secret. In any case, we didn't have just one beer to cool down those chilies, and when we were finished, we wandered back to our hotel room more than satisfied with our culinary experience on the street.

Aquamarine seas and Climbing the walls that rise from them



As I described, we spent a couple of days on Ko Phi Phi. Especially with the Passport debacle, we would have enjoyed a couple more, but I wanted to make another stop before our flight to Vietnam. That place: Railay. Legendary among rock climbers for incredibly overhanging routes with the sea just beneath, like this:



And as you can see from the aerial photo at the top, the beach doesn't suck either. Well, the one on the left doesn't, though the one on the right kind of does. The beach in the foreground of the photo is only reachable by~> read more

 boat from the others, or serious bush-whacking. In fact, though Railay is connected to mainland Thailand, it feels more like an island than even Ko Phi-Phi, because it is less developed and there are still no roads running there, everything must come in by boat (including you!)

I set aside a full day to go climbing. It would have been fun to hang around for a week or two climbing most days, but that's not really part of our larger plan. I still had great fun with the time I had. It's critical to have a partner for climbing who is similar to your ability level, and of course be able to find where to climb! I think Tiffany would be good at it, but she just tried the first time in New Zealand, and an organized trip for a day was the same price as the route guidebook, and I also needed to rent all the equipment, so going with the group was a no-brainer. In the end, I found a couple of partners through the group with similar ability, and climbed with them.

Honestly, I think the really amazing climbs require a top condition climber, which I'm unfortunately not right now. It's not just a matter of being in shape; it's being in climbing shape. However, the climbs that I did were a lot of fun, and comparable to some of the better sport climbing I've done back in the states.

It's important for your hands to stick to the rock when climbing, so you don't fall off! If your hands get sweaty, they get slippery. However, there is a handy solution: gymnast's chalk. Considering the temperature was probably in the 90s with nearly 100% humidity, I really had my doubts about the ability of any chalk to keep my grippers dry. As I watched our small Thai guide scurry up the route first like a gecko, sweat poured down my chest and back, despite having no shirt on at all. I wasn't hopeful. When the guide zipped back down, he was ... BONE dry. I still have no idea how it is possible. The thai guides are better climbers than me, to be sure. But they just don't have a problem with physical exertion in this heat. I think they could run a mile and still might not break a sweat.

As I continued to drip on the dirt, the thai guide gave a norwegian guy who was totally new to climbing a 1-minute crash course in belaying, which could also be known as holding the climber's life in your hands. The climber was to be me, so fearing I would put the crash in "crash course" I slowly taught him how to belay again, and explained the words I would use to indicate my needs to him. Then, I hopped on the wall and gave it a shot. Even my first climb was a great one, with interesting challenges, and the wily norwegian got me back to the ground safe as can be (it's a great heritage ;).

Miraculously, even as sweat poured off of my body, the chalk still worked, and I was able to climb just as well as I could in any temperature. This experience was a wonderful reminder of some of the pursuits I enjoy at home, from within the adventure of travel. I look forward to getting back into climbing a little bit at home, though if my equipment ever gets as rusty as what I used in Railay, I'm selling it for scrap metal!

Ko Phi Phi



Finding that Phuket was a little more packed with buildings and commerce than the beach destination we pictured, we moved on to Ko Phi-Phi, one of Thailand's famous islands but more popular with young backpackers than big resorts as of yet. The Island is an amazing piece of geology, with a long north-south spine of limestone rising 500-1000 feet high, runing parallel to a very similar spine half a mile away. In between, A thin isthmus of sand provides the horizontal part, making an H, and the isthmus also provides the flat ground upon which the island's facilities are built, which mainly consist of one or two level guest houses and relatively cheap hotels.

There are beaches on each side of the isthmus, offering few waves thanks to the shelter of the big spines, but beautiful water and white sand. There is a market on the island offering cheap meals for any and all, but everything must be brought to the island by boat. The island was devastated by the December 2004 tsunami, and perhaps due to the difficulty of removing trash and wreckage by boat, and bringing new building materials by boat, it is still not fully recovered. However, it is relatively quiet this time of year and was a great place to relax for a couple of days.

Unfortunately, most of my first day was spent going back to Phuket. I'd left my passport as a guarantee for a motorcycle I'd rented, and the lady forgot to return it to me, though I also forgot to ask. So I rode 2.5 hours by ferry one way, a little over an hour by motorbike from the pier to the hotel and back, waited another hour, then another 2.5 hours on the ferry. Needless to say, I was ready to jump in the water when I returned in the afternoon!

A few more photos from this beautiful island area are here:

http://bitjug.com/gallery/PhuketKrabi

Fit To Be Thai: Pat's cooking class



With a name like Pat in Thailand, I was a bit skeptical. But, we'd read about her in both Lonely Planet and "To Asia With Love", so we called from a payphone outside of 7/11 and signed up for 'Pat's Home Cooking Classes'. After hearing that we'd be learning to make our favorites like Penang curry and papaya salad, Andy and I walked inside the 7/11 to pretend to shop, but really just to cool down in its blissfully cold air conditioning and celebrate. Finally, we'd have the chance to learn about the dishes we eat daily with near reverie while in Thailand!

Arriving on a rainy morning foreshadowing the imminent monsoons, Pat, a petite, wholly-Thai looking lady in her forties with a modern hair cut, greeted us with glasses of lemongrass ice tea wrapped in banana leaf and garnished orchids. "Whoa! Nice! Classy and SO Thai," I thought.~> read more

  People from Thailand take such care in food presentation and arrangement, truly like no other countries we've encountered so far, and this simple yet elegant start made me positive that Andy and I were going to come away with the best of souvenirs: secrets of Thai cooking.

I was so eager that I wanted to talk tofu, then cook it, immediately. But Pat wanted to sit in the entry parlor to her home and talk about herself, Thailand and us. Very nice, very polite, very Asian -- I felt so American and typical. Here I was ready to rush off to the kitchen and be productive, but she wanted to exchange pleasantries and ease into the moment. Sigh...you can take the American girl to Asia, but you can't take the American out of the girl. Soon enough, Andy and I were in her large indoor, yet open air, cooking studio (it was the largest and most professional of all that we've visited so far) donning burgundy aprons and washing our hands in a clay basin. Pat handed us each cutting boards and knives, and then started going through the exotic yet now familiar ingredients of the Thai kitchen.



For the next three hours, Andy and I choppped, smashed, squeezed, sauteed, stir-fried vegetables, herbs and noodles for curry, soup and Pad Thai (noodles), plus tumbled a jumble of ingredients gently in a mortar and pestle (something that is essential for true SE Asian cuisine) to create a perfectly spiced som tam (green papaya salad). Then, for an hour or more afterward, we sat in Pat's dining room and gorged ourselves on our creations.

What I liked best about the classes with Pat (we liked our first one so much that we called her back that evening and signed up for a private lesson), is that I finally feel like I got tips, shortcuts and insider information so I can replicate some of these dishes at home...wherever that may be. Thai food is exceptionally challenging because there are so many fresh herbs and spicy chilies (which come thanks to the exploration of the Portuguese) and even one "wrong" ingredient spirals the taste off in a less authentic direction. Now I know how to shop for fish sauce (it should be the clear color of maples syrup), you can substitute any fresh mushrooms for straw mushrooms, and Chaokoh coconut milk is the best brand. Pat cooked for six years at a Thai restaurant on Melrose Avenue in LA and convinced a few stars to break their rigid diets and taste her dishes, so she knows what ingredients are available in the US.

Also, Andy and I spent close to 15 minutes under her tutelage squeezing desicated coconut meat (from the older and fuzzy brown coconuts) in hot water to make fresh coconut cream, which we later used for curries. We smashed stalks of lemon grass ever so perfectly (three whacks until they're flat, but no more) and learned how the root of coriander/cilantro is incredibly flavorful and valuable for soups, so we should pound on it too and throw into herby stocks! Plus, under Pat's sharp black-brown eyes, and even sharper tongue that wasn't afraid to tell us when we were doing things wrong ("Too fat!" or "Mmm, no good! I show you!" she'd chirp in the perenially foreign and incredibly shrill rising and falling tones that dominate Asia's languages, and seem to leak into english as well), we picked up a few new knife skills. We shredded kaffir lime leaves into dental floss size strips for fish cakes and Penang with cleaved whacks, while tearing others only in half...because for soups, you need fuller flavor and for curries and cakes, you need only bits of their floral yet tangy limeness.

Pat especially loved Andy (who wouldn't, really?) because he's a whiz with a knife and she could tell that he does chopping and cooking at home. And, he has "very strong, very big (beeg is how Pat says it) hands" for squeezing coconut creme. Each class she smiled and spoke of his hands and strength, and I laughed silently thinking their exchange was a funny, not so wicked twist on Little Red Riding Hood. Sort of a "Little Flowered Sarong meeting Big Bad Western Man-Hands" fairy tale...

In the final moments as we plated hot foods, mounding noodles into dome shapes or squeezing fresh lime juice into soup bowls to make the "sour" of "hot and sour", Pat imparted direction on how to serve with Thai flair. We cris-crossed scallions, sprinkled peanuts and dusted a green layer on white plates with kaffir lime leaves and sweet basil. Now, she nodded with approval, our meal was ready! Thai food is as much about perfect, harmonious presentation as it is about the hot-sour-tangy-salty-sweet layers of flavor. Pat liked to leave us alone to stuff our faces in silence for the first few minutes, then she'd bound back with the same energy as her darling Beagle puppy that adored us and our paper napkins, and ask questions about how much things cost in America (that's very popular over here), gently offer the rental of her mountain house, give advice on traveling Thailand and more.

As we finished the most perfect plate ever of sweet sticky rice and just in season mango, Pat had us sign her guestbook (this is also very popular in Asia and India) and I felt a little twinge of something. It wasn't the heat of chilies in my stomach, it was something different...almost a type of sadness. For the fleeting beauty of the meal, perhaps a little. But even more, I believe, it was about our hours with Pat and how fun and free it was to share food and friendship. Like the Thai cuisine, many of our travel moments are hot, sour, salty and sweet, and also like those definitive, satisfying flavors, I don't always want them to end.

A few more photos from this great class are here: http://bitjug.com/gallery/PatsClass

Friday, May 19, 2006

Diving back into Thailand

As our plane dipped down from the smoggy clouds in approach for Bangkok International Airport, I looked out at the dense landscape of twinkling lights and cement towers and said to Andy, "Look at that. In our view are more people than live in all of New Zealand! Hello culture shock."

And with that, our wheels hit the ground and we were back in Asia. Exotic, chaotic, crowded, odorous Bangkok...our home away from home on this trip. Though the city isn't our own, it's become so on this trip. We have "our" guesthouse, where the ladies at the desk are uncharacteristically brisk but know us, "our" cafe with the best red curry in the nation, "our" ATM machines with the best conversion rates, and tons of metered (we LOVE the meter!) taxis with full-blast AC and drivers who sing along to pop music as if they're practicing for American Idol. We always seem to arrive back in Bangkok at odd hours, and whether 12:17am or 3:12am, the familiarity is comforting and we feel happy.

We didn't linger, however, and instead headed right back to the airport after 6 hours of sleep at "our" place and two hours of reshuffling warm clothes for cool clothes, jamming our storage locker full of wool and selling our NZ books on Khao San road for a few hundred baht. Though frankly, nothing is cool enough for us...we're in shock -- it's 20 degrees CELSIUS hotter than where we were 24 hours ago in NZ!!! Andy, master of discount airlines and their websites, found us ridiculously cheap tickets($40 each) to Phuket, so off we jetted to Thailand's most fabled, most touristed island in the Andaman Sea..~> read more

 

The monsoons start in early May, so we jumped right back into Southeast Asia's turquoise-teal warm waters to scuba dive at Thailand's limestone pinnacles and reefs at least once. On our first day in Phuket, we had tea in an air-conditioned cafe called Andaman Coffee that has ripped off everything about Starbucks including its green and white color scheme and snappy CD mixes. I wouldn't say we miss Starbucks per se, but finding a place where I could actually drink hot tea without breaking a sweat was alluring. Inside, Andy spotted a man wearing a dive shop t-shirt who spoke little English and had a whopping sunburn (like nearly all germans in phuket), but he managed to communicate by pointing and pantomiming and got a recommendation from the guy for Sea Bees Diving. Sea Bees turned out to be a German operation that runs as smoothly as those Porsche engines Andy adores. We did a "Super Sunday" diving extravaganza with them, had a dive master named Armin who was hairless, "huuuuge" in the "pump you up" sense and hilarious because he talked a lot like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Like Ahr-nold, Armin had almost perfect English save for a few winning phrases like his pep talk while we lifted air tanks that included "what not kills you, makes you harder!"

With Armin leading the way and telling us we'd "rohck zee haus fah zhuur" on each dive, Andy and I enjoyed a fun, exhausting day in the ocean that ended in typical German style--on time and with a beer. We saw a number of clown fish (Nemo), lion fish, giant grouper, crabs, schools of squid and glass fish and needlefish, but my favorites were the small nurse sharks and the fairly large-but-harmless leopard shark. Thailand has a number of benign sharks that hang out at their reefs and the amazing limestone islands that sink from the sky down deep into the sea and make for dramatic "wall" dives, and we saw them lazing about under rocks and sleeping on the ocean floor while the "cleaner" fish danced around them. Nurse sharks look just like those gray plastic toy sharks, only bigger, but the leopard shark was unlike anything I expected. That guy truly was truly spotted and speckled in brown, black and gold, and looked just like one of my skirts, quite impressive at around 8 feet long!

Phuket itself was in places beautiful, tropical and dreamy, and in others vividly commercial, seedy and totally infested with sunburnt Europeans. It's a huge island with several different beach areas that we explored on foot and motorbike, having one especially fun day where we hit four different beaches and swam up and down the coast, yet there are always traces of commerical plunder. To us, Phuket's unapologetic tourism plus a healthy dose of the sex trade between Thai girls and old Western men overshadows its charm. I'm glad we visited and saw the sunny sprawl that is Phuket, but I'm not sure we'll be back. The diving was rewarding and fun, but both Andy and I are excited to dive deeper into Thailand's western coast and find a different piece of paradise.

Dusky Dawn



We heard rave reviews about this activity. Well, our guidebook mentioned rave
reviews, and we talked to some people who had talked to some other people. Hmm. This is often the way the reviews come in, and sometimes there is disappointment. But this time, there was NO disappointment!

Possibly the highlight of our trip to New Zealand was the "Dolphin Encounter" in Kaikoura, New Zealand. Here, on the north end of the east side of the south island (got that?), there is a very deep canyon system in the ocean, and it is very unique that in Kaikoura this canyon system comes very close to the shore of the land. Because of the deep water, a large amount of plankton and other marine life comes up nearer the surface than it normally would, which in turn brings the animals that feed on this marine life up.

This means that whales and dolphins in particular are easily spotted here, and in fact kaikoura is a world famous whale-watching destination. However, we had heard about a little more intimate experience, swimming "with" the dolphins.~> read more (with photos)

  We were very fortunate to have great weather for our swim day, which is by no means guaranteed.

The day of our swim, we were requested to show up to Dolphin Encounter headquarters at 5:30 am. This building is right along the waterfront, but at 5:30 it was totally dark (just like the sky!), but we saw a mass of people huddled outside the building. Soon, the building opened up and we checked in. We were then sized up for masks, snorkels, fins, and thick 2-piece wetsuits for the cold water (comparable to the oregon coast). Then, we watched a video explaining that we might not see anything, where to find the life vests on the boat we hadn't yet laid eyes on, and that when we are in the water we should squeak madly into our snorkels and possibly dive down into the cold cold water. Quite mistifying, really.

We were bussed to the boat and climbed on. As we steamed on to where the dolphins were presumably located, the sunrise behind the land to the back of the boat took on amazing fiery proportions (see photo). The weather was calm, and we knew it was going to be a good day one way or another.



The Dolphin Encounter people have a specific process figured out. First, the "swimmers" (that's us) get suited up in our wetsuits, fins, masks, and snorkels. Then, the captain finds a pod of 300-500 dolphins, which are easy to see once you're there from the fins on the surface, but I don't know how they find the pod in the first place. Once tight groups of fins are seen totally surrounding the boat, the captain rings the buzzer, which reminds me of this horn blast they used in swim competitions I was in as a kid after they phased out the cap gun. Very loud, sharp sound, and also meant to signal that you should dive into the water! Picture two benches the whole width of a large boat, each level packed with snorkeled and finned swimmers diving into the water!!

However, we were advised to dive smoothly and quietly (good luck with all that gear), so that we didn't scare the dolphins away. Once in the water, all we could see was beautiful blue-green sea, in a pristine color I've only seen in New Zealand. We had bright sunlight making the water glow that day. All we could see was this blue; the water was around 1500 feet deep! So imagine just having jumped in very cold water, looking around frantically, a little bit scared, not knowing what to expect, and ... ZOOM! A grey blur whizzes by you. What was that? A dusky dolphin of course. And you see more, more and more! In fact, they are more often swimming in groups of 2 or 3 than alone, just mere inches between one dolphin's fin and the body of the next.

It's difficult to describe the feeling of seeing animals who can swim with such amazing grace glide by just a few feet in front of your face. Awe is certainly a big part of the emotion. But there's also a bit of desperation, as these amazing marine mammals are just zooming past you, and you'd sure like to have a moment with them. We were taught in our video briefing to sing through our snorkel, which seemed completely ridiculous at the time, but once we were in the water, everyone was doing it! This is intended to get the dolphins' attention, they are very inquisitive creatures. It is also possible to dive down to entertain them. They are surprisingly unafraid, unlike wild mammals on the land.

So, your goal is to make some wild noises or move around to get the dolphins' attention. Inevitably, the first several zip right by, but even the first time we were in the water both Tiffany and I were able to catch the attention of a few dolphins. If you catch a dolphin's attention, he or she will swim around you in a circle, so we would try to swim in a circle ourselves to follow them. It takes all a human swimmer's ability just to keep up with a dolphin's slowest pace. As it swims around you, the dolphin will keep its eye on you, and if you follow it, you can gaze right into its eye. This eye contact is a very personal experience that truly feels like eye contact with a very intelligent being that is interested in you, and even seems to know something about you. Their eyes are deep, unlike a fish. You just feel their playfulness and intelligence during this experience.

After the pod moved, we were loaded back onto the benches on the back of the boat twice more, and again dumped into the water with the buzzer once the boat had found the dolphins again. In the last session, Tiffany had a very touching experience where she was not only able to get a dolphin's attention, but as she swam, the dolphin mirrored her movements. This feeling is just so different from the interaction we have had with any other animals in the world. We certainly wish the dolphins the best, and we will think carefully about dolphins in the future. They are a very special part of our world!

There are a few more photos for your viewing pleasure, including one of a dusky dolphin jumping, as they certainly seem to enjoy doing!:

http://bitjug.com/gallery/KaikouraDolphins

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Dying for the Vine



Visiting the wineries that cultivate the zingy, fruity Sauvignon Blancs which I adore was something I counted down the days until in New Zealand. Especially as we traveled through countries with exactly zero good wine; I craved just one delicious sip to savor with Andy over conversation and atmosphere. [Note: I refuse to count wine coolers as a viable option, though they were available in Laos.] So as we finally journeyed, tasted, swirled, smelled and sipped our way through Central Otago and Marlborough in New Zealand, I was in grape heaven.

Since I probably push the edge of the blog with my near-neurotic food descriptions, I don't want to bore you all by waxing poetic on noses of passion fruit and goose berries and velvety finishes of coffee, cocoa and spice.

In summary:

The bad news is that we couldn't afford to ship any of the fine wines home. Look for Akarua, Kathy Lynskey, Huia, Seresin, Lawson's Dry Hills, Aurum, Chard Farm, Bald Hills and Bladen in restaurants and wine stores. They scored a near 100 points with us, especially Kathy Lynsky and Huia.

The good news, however, is that we didn't crash while riding our bikes through the acres of vines and that we're off to SE Asia and NOT Betty Ford after our days of tasting!~> read more (with photos)

 

Oh, and Kim Crawford of the ubiquitous Kim Crawford label and screw-cap pioneer, is a guy!

In greater detail:

After drinking in the wines and scenery, it's time to set the record straight on New Zealand's wines: there is a hell of a lot more there to quench the palate than just "savvie" (their term for sauvignon blanc). Whether pinot noir, riesling, rose, bubbles (champagne-method) or gewurztraminer, the Kiwis are concocting some delicate yet definitive, fresh and food-friendly liquid poetry that woos and satisfies the palates like both Napa and the Loire.

We loved our days in the vineyards not only for the wine, but because the lush yet rocky landscapes and charming people enhanced every sip. Central Otago lies on the South Island not far from Queenstown and is filled with rough-hewn, gravelly, bald hills that contrasted beautifully with the autumn leaves blooming gold and crimson halfway up the steep sides. (Remember, we're in the Southern Hemisphere and it's the cusp of autumn there right now! Craziness!) There, the water is a mineral-enhanced blue-green and people bungy jump off single-lane bridges that connect the small, curvy roads that wind through acres vineyards and farmland. It's the world's southernmost wine region and we were on the 45th Parallel...of the southern hemisphere! Marlborough sprawls along the salty sounds and cloudy bays of Cook Strait and gets more days of sunshine than anywhere in NZ. Biking through rows and rows of vines, roses and olive trees on stony soil, we were cooled by the fresh breezes that influence its wine. I believe it's a similar landscape to California's North Coast, but with better 'fush 'n chups'.

Save for the biggies like Cloudy Bay and Brancott, the wineries are small and all about quality instead of quantity. At Kathy Lynskey, we had an awesome tasting with Kathy and her partner Kent, enjoying everything from their renegade and risky (because of the climate) merlots to their fruity, velvety olive oil on warmed-just-for-us ciabatta. While visiting Huia, we spent over 30 minutes talking with a Czech lady who's apprenticing there and hopes to return to Bohemia to develop the industry, and at both Bald Peak and Olssens, we met their respective dogs, Jack and Nola. We also tasted wines with Judy Finn of Neudorf (co-owner with her husband Tim) and heard about her teenage daughter's love of sushi and the fact she feels it pairs beautifully with rose!

My personal favorite interaction, however, was at Aurum, a small family-owned winery in Cromwell. There, we tasted with Joan Lawrence, the wife of the owner, and while swirling their Burgundy-style pinot noir in fancy Riedel glasses, her vintner husband Tony came racing in with a carafe of something that looked like very light beer -- pale yellow and cloudy. "Here," he cried jubilantly while pouring all three of us a taste, "try this! It's next year's Chard!" And indeed it was...young chardonnay, hazy with yeast and sugary like kicky grape juice. Tony was out in the tanks in their barn tasting his future, and we all got to experience it, along with his enthusiam, first hand. A few minutes later, an eight-month old toddler crawled across the tasting room floor and Joan scooped her up without missing a beat in her detail of their worry about rain in the last days of harvest. Baby Mathilde is the Lawrenece's granddaughter, and their French daughter-in-law came through the door next. She and the Lawrence's son are the next generation of Aurum and focusing on pinot noir. In the most hilarious, human moment, Andy and I learned that Joan and the daughter-in-law don't agree on cheese: one is partial to NZ's hard cheddars and the believes singlemindedly in the superiority of French fromage.

As with most great art, the wines of New Zealand are personal. Visiting there, we experienced it intimately in first person and tasted the art-meets-science liquid that is wine in a setting as charming as the old world, yet as unique as the new. Both Andy and I later talked about all of the information we gained at the wineries and how we can't wait to surprise a sommelier who doesn't expect we actually know something about natural yeasts and what a little oak can do to sauv blanc. However, what truly stood out for us and will linger is the appreciation and respect we gained for the people who live and die by the vine to make it.

We have a few photos from central otago here, which includes us doing some other fun things in Queenstown: http://bitjug.com/gallery/Queenstown

AND we've also put together a very short gallery from the famous Marlborough region: http://bitjug.com/gallery/Marlb

Milford Sound: Not So Silent



Everyone said we must visit. Whether by land or sea, bus or boat, it was imperative that Andy and I take in the wonders of Milford Sound, the heart and soul of Fiordland National Park, so we made arrangements to drive the five hours from Queenstown (not that making Andy drive anywhere after being a tuk-tuk and rickshaw passenger in Asia is a hardship), got reservations at the Milford Lodge for two nights and reserved ourselves spots on a sea kayak, a cruise, the underwater observatory and to hike the last two miles of the world famous Milford Track. If we were doing it, we were going to do it right -- and in as much style as is possible when backpacking. Thus, this meant new rainbow striped long underwear for me to survive the temperatures that are damn cold post-SE Asia, Cadbury hot chocolate and a bottle or two of Central Otago pinot noir.

Driving into Milford is beautiful, but honestly, nearly every journey you drive in New Zealand has moments of spectacular scenery whether it's fields of fuzzy and freshly-shorn sheep, pools of cerulean blue water with a clarity like glass, steep mountains wearing scarves of fluffy white clouds, or dense forests of hodgepodge ferns, beech, pine and palm trees. Driving NZ is a two-fold treat for us too as being in a car is constantly a unique sense of freedom -- we get in, we drive, we don't negotiate the fare, we're in control -- with a glorious backdrop of natural splendor. Add an iPod, and you're in heaven!

Things really got exciting as we emerged on the other side of the Homer Tunnel, an eerie, narrow chunk of rock they've cut through to make a primitive car passage, but one so raw it drips natural spring water from the roof and has the only occasional weak bulb lights that emit a yellowish glow for the near five-minute dark drive.~> read more (with photos)

  As bright light cut the darkness, we emerged on the other side of the mountain in a landscape that lived up to its Fiordland name.

Rocky mountains, with green vegetation scaling only halfway up the peaks, rose in sharp, jagged towers on either side of the car and into the distance ahead. From level ground where we sat in the car staring aghast at crystal-clear green-blue water, the cliffs pitched up so steeply to the sky that that you could truly imagine the great forces of the earth clashing together to make this sculptural site. Only the sheer power of Mother Nature and some magical plate tectonics could form something so massive, so intimidating and yet so beautiful.

Sudsy white waterfalls tumble down the fiords like hot icing dripping off warm cake, their fall from hundreds of meters making a dewy, fizzy spray that mingles with the leafy greens and icy blues to create a misty land that makes you actually believe in fairies and sprites. Add to this the occasional glacier peeking out on a rocky cliff into sun-streaked, cloud-speckled skies and you get a view (and photos, kudos to Andy!) so potent and dramatic that it looks like one of those inspiring image posters printed with bible verses and sold to the faithful.

Sea kayaking was, in our opinion, the best way to experience the elements and splendor to the fullest and we spent a full five hours paddling about Milford Sound. I loved skimming over the deep, clear water, touching my fingers to its icy current, and got so excited when seals greeted us that I had the kayak swerving and tipping! New Zealand fur seals are utterly irresistible; you can do nothing but smile when you see them swimming and swirling by your kayak, bewhiskered and sleek, and performing a hilarious, less graceful yet still elegant form of water ballet. Sitting on the water and staring straight up 1,700 meters of naturally cut rocky frontages, you feel the fiords in all their glory and sharp definition.

Andy and I also cruised the entire 16km of Milford Sound to the Tasman Sea on a sightseeing boat (the early sailing because the later ones are filled with tourists dwon for a day trip) and loved it when the captain put the bow of the boat right under one of the waterfalls, seemingly hair's breadth from the craggy rock cliffs, dousing everyone with spray for fun. The steep peaks go straight from sky into the sea, so even anything from a sea kayak to 150 foot cruiser can float up to the walls without scraping bottom. The most astonishing thing for me, however, is the color of the water in Milford, and frankly, all of New Zealand. During our brief hike on the Milford Track, we saw streams, flowing and still, with water that was so perfectly clear that you thought the river beds were empty! And the Sound itself... Its waters ranged from choppy to ripples to smooth, but the hues were everything a blue could be: sapphire, teal, azure, turquoise, midnight, cobalt. No matter how many photos we tried to take, none did it justice. Seeing water like that embodies the definition of pristine and adds an extra layer of beauty and belief that this land is untouched and pure.

What is not untouched and pure, however, though it is heavily regulated, is the number of travelers remote Milford sees in a day. In high season, between 2,000 and 4,000 per day! All three of our days, the sky was abuzz with scores of small planes and helicopters delivering tourists into the tiny airport for day trips, or flying their bags to fancy lodges on the Milford Track. The revving of jet engines and the whirring of propellers was discordant with the stunning scenery and chirping sea birds, and you can't imagine the number of full bus coaches on the road to and from the Sound that made our rental car feel like a Hot Wheels miniature on the narrow alpine roads. While I'm not sure it diminished our experience in any great way, I was surprised. It's that double-edged sword of tourism again for New Zealand as with "The Lord of the Rings". Now that it's been "discovered", finding balance between the natural and unnatural, the desire for dollars and the preservation of what embodies (for now) the definition of pristine, is as awesome as the landscape.

We have a few more photos up; This place makes it easy on the photographer!:

http://bitjug.com/gallery/MilfordSound

Monday, May 01, 2006

Seals of Approval



After our delightful encounter with seals in Milford, we craved more. And while I don't use that adjective often, it just seems right for seals -- they brought immediate smiles to our face every time we spotted one and they're truly the dogs of the sea that play, tease, roll about in lazy, funny fashion and seduce humans with a whiskered smile. Thus when we learned that Kaikoura offered a seal swim as well as a dolphin swim, we hightailed it there right out of Christchurch, stopping there only for lunch, so we could get it in before the weather and seasons changed.

Kaikoura, which is a beautiful blend of Maui's beaches (blue waters and bright tropical flowers) and Oregon's Coast (rocky bays, picturesque cliffs and windward trees) on the northeast part of the South Island, is home to a New Zealand fur seal colony. Every day, they play on the rocks, swim in the kelp-laden waters, come ashore to rest (even in the parking lots nearby!), mate and replicate in season, and indulge in human interaction led by guides who've known the seals for years. We signed up ASAP and prayed for good weather...

The gods acquiesced and the day dawned clear and bright blue, and the water...sigh...even brighter blue! Andy and I promptly arrived at the uncreatively named but highly-regarded Seal Swim Kaikoura and got fitted for gear. This included a thick (at least 1/2" in your torso where the jacket and long johns both cover) wetsuit (those unflattering but necessary garments! i've never worn so many in my life!) with a full jacket and hood--so buoyant it functions as a lifejacket, booties, masks, snorkels and fins. Our group of 8 people clambered in the open-air back of an old Land Rover like a bunch of Navy SEALS, though definitely not as agile or bad ass. Excited and anxious, for sure -- and totally uncertain of what to expect.~> read more (with photos)

 

At the water's edge of what is technically the South Pacific, we waded out to a small outboard motorboat bobbing in a rocky bay and the cold temperature dashed my naive hope of anything tropical. The eight of us non-SEALS sat on the floor of the boat and away we zoomed further out into the sea, the captain carefully navigating the rocks and large forests of greenish-brown kelp that splayed across the waves. As we got closer the major portion of rocks that jutted from land way out into the Pacific, I saw a few brown sausage-like shapes swimming in the water and was thrilled -- seals! It was really happening!

Our captain/guide pointed out a number of fur seals swimming in the water, and a few more resting in the sun on the rocks, and said we could dive in. Andy was over the edge of the boat like a true frogman in nothing flat, and I followed, but we later talked about how neither of us knew what to expect. I wasn't scared, but it just seemed rather random and unpredictable -- into the water you go...and look for seals!The first surprise was that the water felt damn cold and invigorating (and that's from an Oregon Girl who knows nothing of warm water), and then I got my bearings and snorkel in, and adjusted to the fact we were not only swimming with seals, but also crystalline waters laden with rocks and forests of seaweed and kelp and bobbing along in consistent waves. This was no Sea World experience in a warm aquamarine pool -- this was the open ocean and you felt the full power and pleasure of the elements.

And then, out of the corner of my mask, as I snorkeled the surface with my head and eyes pointed down and alert in the chilly blue depths, a rocket-like movement of sleek brown with a scalloped tail silhouette stopped me. A seal!!! It took my breath away for a second and I inhaled sharply (not so smart!), but there was residual saltwater in my snorkel from the waves and I got a mouthful of more surprise than just a seal-sighting. Oh well... The seal was gone, but soon another zoomed into sight and this one saw me and turned its head toward me, and was about 5 feet away!Shiny black eyes like flattened ebony marbles looked at me dead on. And whiskers that were thick and looked more like the quill of a feather twitched beguilingly. The seal stopped and kind of levitated in the water, then swam off with lightning speed. Damn -- they are fast! But wow -- the sense of connection and wonder you feel when connecting straight on with a wild mammal's eyes was unreal. It was somehow different than a dog or cat. Maybe it's because we intuitively know those are domesticated animals and seeing one in the wild, and having it see you, and connect with that intimacy was totally different.

Soon another brown sausage-rocket sailed through the water next to me, then turned and swirled around me for a moment, curving its head and tail together to form a furry brown 'o' shape that floated underwater with perfect buoyancy. This seal somersaulted about me for a minute, then uncurled itself and swam two feet in front of me and opened its mouth to show off some fine white teeth! WHOA!!! That made my head spin for a minute...was it playing, smiling or reminding me that I could be lunch? We later found out that the seals chomp at each other in defense occasionally, but never on humans, though for some reason they love to swim and show off their teeth to other mammals. I have to admit, seeing the seal in the water and showing off its teeth brought a momentary surge of fear and reminder that this is an uncontrolled situation, but Andy and I shared stories in the boat as we moved to a new sight and he'd had it happen too so I chose to think of it as the seal "smiled" at me. Coping strategies and delusions, I know -- but it worked!

We were dropped off in another area among the rocks and there we remained in the water for about an hour, swimming with the seals in the sun and sea. Until our chilly bodies, so many millimeters of neoprene notwithstanding, couldn't take it anymore. Totally awesome, trust me! Here, I had two seals that stayed with me for about 10 minutes...swimming along my side and cavorting, sometimes zooming by me showing off their toothy smiles and mirroring me as I swam in short circles to encourage their play. Other times they'd go back to somersaulting and swirling with their flippers and tail touching, plus seals can turn their necks at the most amazing angle and touch their tails so that acrobatic pose was often struck while underwater with perfect grace. I felt connected with those two especially because we just kept looking at each other, their sparkly eyes to my mask, and swimming in playful circles without a care in the world. Having a wild creature stay with you in water and copy your moves is quite humbling and extraordinary.

The next day, Andy and I went back to the colony before leaving for one last look and seal-induced smile. Here, we got some photos since we couldn't take our camera in the boat, and you'll see the hilarious, hydrodynamic creatures as we found them --in the parking lot, catching some rays and sleeping, or shaking off the ocean with a blubbery shimmy, seeming halfway between a dog and a whale. I can't tell you how much that made us laugh! Swimming with the seals is definitely something I'll remember forever. Our day with them and the dolphins is absolutely one of my most favorite on this trip. It was so rare and unlike anything I ever do in my "normal" (whatever that means) life, plus few activities in life give a sense of yourself as a mammal and remind you of the connection and similarities we humans have with other creatures on earth.

Please view our photos of seals in the gallery:

http://bitjug.com/gallery/KaikouraSeals