Category Archives: Places

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Living an examined life

With Thailand on my right, and Laos on my left, I type these words while seated on-board a slow boat drifting gently down the Mekong River.

We are nearly an hour into our approximately 14 hour journey from Huay Xai to Luang Prabang, Laos.

Despite my usual fears, our vessel is actually very comfortable. All nine of us on board have our own table as well as a double seat which looks to have been removed from a van or small bus. The gentle breeze, the rumbling engine, the subtle side-to-side  rocking of the boat, and the spectacular views of riverside villages have completely silenced all passengers. Some (including Marina seated in front of me) are absorbed in their book, others listen to music, while some write in their journals.

No one dares to break the silence.

There’s something quite amazing about traveling slowly, knowing that you have no hurry to get to your destination. There are few distractions. You quickly forget the urgency of life back home and settle into a more meditative state. Your mind – usually flexed with tension of looming deadlines, responsibilities, expectations, incoming emails, etc. – finally stretches out.

Thoughts of weekend plans, that erroneous cell-phone bill you need to call about, or the repairs needed on your car fizzle away to obscurity as you ponder your path in life, reassess your values, carefully recount the errors you’ve made, and focus on what you really require to be happy and content in your life.

An unexamined life is not worth living

Socrates

This is the gift of prolonged travel – whether by bus, boat, train, or plane. Many people embark on longer journeys with the purpose of “finding themselves”; the notion being that somewhere on the treadmill of modern life they’ve managed to become lost.

But all most of us require is some time and solitude, and the opportunity to examine our life from an aerial rather than the usual street view.

I can’t pretend that travel is the panacea for all of one’s problems; the problems you leave behind when you strap on your backpack are waiting to greet you upon return. However, if you’re feeling lost, lacking purpose, or uninspired, a sabbatical of some sort might be just the cure. You needn’t go far – maybe a staycation is all that is necessary. Just some time to break away from the monotony of everyday life.

Beware the bareness of a busy life

Socrates

Peter

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Skydiving in Lake Taupo, New Zealand

Skydiving in Lake Taupo, New Zealand

NOTE: An edited version of this story was previously published in the Globe and Mail (read it here).

(Video below)

Approximately 15,000 feet above New Zealand`s caldera-housed Lake Taupo, my behind is firmly planted on the cold metal floor of the plane, while my feet dangle outside, being whipped around like a flag in the breeze. With both hands, I hold onto the shoulder straps of my harness, which is attached to my tandem skydiving guide, Brad. I briefly glance past my feet at the Google-Earth-like view below and realize the moment has come: I am jumping out of a plane.

“Are you ready?” screams Brad over the roar of the plane’s engine.

“Yes!” I yell back with a tone of assuredness that sounds foreign.

Just before we begin hurling towards the earth’s surface at terminal velocity, a thought crosses my mind: “Shouldn’t I be more frightened?”

As we slip out of the plane in nearly upright posture, I experience the stomach-in-throat sensation of a steep roller coaster descent. Within seconds, Brad manoeuvres his body so that we are falling in a belly-to-earth orientation, creating greater drag and prolonging our free fall.

Skydiving in Lake Taupo, New Zealand

The overall sensation of falling through the air is so foreign that only bits and pieces of the experience register in my consciousness. I can hear the gentle whistle of air flowing past my ears. My face, hands and ankles feel cold. The air resistance pushing against my palms reminds me of holding my hand out of the window of a moving car. I notice a cloud to my right and wonder what it would be like to fly directly through it. I see that the camera lens of the skydiving photographer to my left is focused on me and I wave in his direction. Below me I see the shore of Lake Taupo quickly coming into increasing focus. I realize I have yet to make a sound since exiting the plane – scream or otherwise – but decide it is too late for a hearty woo-hoo!!

Instead, I turn my head back towards Brad and yell: “This is amazing!”

As someone who has struggled with anxiety for the better part of their adult life, I am surprised by my present calmness. I have experienced significantly greater anxiety during much more innocuous activities. In the minutes preceding every one of my conference research presentations, my palms would get cold and sweaty, my heart would race uncontrollably, as thoughts of potential catastrophe swirled in my mind; “What if my research has flaws?”, “What if someone asks me a question I am unable to answer?”, I would worry.

Skydiving in Lake Taupo, New Zealand

And yet, here I am, free falling at 200km/hr from a distance exceeding eight stacked CN towers, and I am feeling merely a fraction of the jitters that usually accompany my conference presentations. Somehow the potential for slamming into the earth evokes less fear than being grilled about my research by some nitpicky senior scientists at a conference.

After what feels like only a few seconds, Brad instructs: “Hold onto your harness!” Apparently, our 60 seconds of free fall are coming to an end.

A moment later, I feel like a marionette whose slack string have been abruptly tightened, as our parachute opens, quickly decelerating our momentum.

Over the next 5 minutes, Brad and I glide in the breeze, descending ever so gently towards the ground. We briefly discuss our respective careers and other mundane matters as though we’re seated in a coffee shop. I’m surprised and yet relieved to hear that this was Brad’s twelfth jump of the day.

“Just another day at the office!” he jokes.

As we approach the ground and Brad begins working the parachute in preparation for our landing my mind again drifts to question that arose just before exiting the plane: shouldn’t I have been more scared?

Maybe it was the last-minute planning that robbed my mind of the time necessary to wind itself up into a knot of worst-case scenarios. Only three hours ago, my partner Marina, and our friend Emily were half-way between Auckland and our destination of Rotorua, in the middle of New Zealand`s north island, with no intention of skydiving that day in nearby Taupo.

Maybe it was the near-complete lack of control over the experience. Once you’re up in the plane, there’s really only one way to return to terra firma with your ego intact. And it’s not as though I jumped out of the plane, as much as I was strapped to someone who did.

Whatever the reason, those 60 seconds of freefall definitely placed my earthly anxieties in stark perspective.

Back on the ground, as I’m being unclipped from my parachute, Marina asks: “How was that?”

“Fantastic!” I respond, as we exchange hugs in our skydiving gear.

And a hell of a lot easier than a conference presentation, I think to myself.

Peter

Here’s the full-length video of our skydive (email subscribers need to head over to PhDNomads to view):

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From crickets to tarantulas: sampling Southeast Asia’s culinary oddities

NOTE: An edited version of this story was previously published in the Globe and Mail (read it here).

As I swiftly pick a cricket from a paper bag and deliver it to my mouth, my brain, hard-wired to protect me from mistakenly poisoning myself, revolts. But it’s too late. Sensing the cricket’s prickly legs on my tongue, I quickly transfer the crispy insect to the back of my mouth and begin to gnash it to bits with my molars. The only perceptible flavour is soy sauce, while the texture vaguely reminds me of a deep fried shrimp tail. Before I can reflect any further on the qualities of the bolus of mashed cricket in my mouth, I swallow.

“You’re right – it’s not that bad!” I exclaim, forcing a smile.

My partner, Marina doesn’t seem convinced. With a look of disgust she retorts, “You have a leg stuck in your teeth.”

As is typical of decisions you later regret, it all started with a healthy dose of peer pressure as we perused a night market in Chiang Mai’s walled city, in northern Thailand.

“You’ve got to try one”, encouraged Tim, a British friend of ours with a peculiar appetite for weird foods. As nonchalantly as if it were freshly popped kettle corn, he had been happily munching away on barbecued crickets he had purchased from a street vendor.

As we continued down the dimly-lit street flanked by vendors on either side, squeezing past the flow of sweaty, sunburnt tourists, the satisfaction of having overcome such a gross feat began to sink in. Sadly, that first momentary lapse in judgement – the result of which I was picking out of my teeth for some time after – was only the beginning of my reluctant adventures through Asia’s culinary oddities.

I dined on frog which had the consistency of tough lobster, but disappointingly, tasted like chicken.

I avoided gagging on bone-riddled water snake by imagining I was consuming an overcooked haddock.

I slurped up raw clams that had been left to roast in the sun, which, unsurprisingly, tasted like raw clams that had been roasting in the sun.

I actually enjoyed a nice beef stir fry that happened to include a healthy dose of red ants, which despite being visually unnerving, were largely imperceptible in both texture and flavour.

The most psychologically challenging dining experience of the trip, and frankly, of my entire life, involved a deep-fried tarantula – hairy legs and all.

As a group of us sat checking the drink menu at a restaurant in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, our Cambodian friend, Long, emptied the contents of a brown paper bag onto a large plate.

“They’re just spiders”, Long reassured us, as he broke a leg off of one palm-sized arachnid and popped it into his mouth.

According to Long, the consumption of tarantulas in Cambodia began as a means to survive the dramatic food scarcity throughout the country during the rule of the Khmer Rouge regime. Today, many years after the fall of Pol Pot’s regime, tarantulas remain a delicacy among locals and a curiosity for tourists.

Shortly following the historical explanation, the plate of tarantulas appeared under my nose. My heart immediately started racing as everyone at the table chimed in with the usual coaxing. Using my fork, I removed one of the spider’s eight legs and fighting my gag reflex, I began chewing what might be described as a crunchy straw.

But this was the easy part.

Despite my prior triumphs over crickets and snakes, I was frankly petrified of biting into the tarantula’s meaty body. I imagined the crisp outer layer cracking, and the tarantula’s inner contents exploding in my mouth like an over-ripened cherry tomato.

Dining on tarantula in Cambodia.

Instead, as I bit into the spider’s body I encountered white meat that had a softer texture than chicken and tasted only like the garlic, MSG, and salt in which it was cooked.

To be perfectly honest, despite the visual appearance of these bizarre local delicacies, none actually tasted that foul.

The most violent assault on my gustatory sense was committed by neither insect nor arachnid, but a fruit offered by a vendor in Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam. Referred to by the locals as the “king of fruit”, durian fruit grows in trees and looks like bowling-ball sized lychee. The most obvious characteristic of durian fruit is its highly pungent odour, which has led to the prohibition of its consumption and possession in numerous public places throughout Southeast Asia. If you can get past the smell, you’ll be rewarded by a flavour somewhere between week-old chopped onions and freshly soiled hockey equipment, and the texture of lumpy mashed potatoes.

In truth, I’d choose tarantula over durian any day.

Peter

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Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai: A photo diary

A sample of our favourite photos from northern Thailand (Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai):

Getting close with Chaing Mai's ladyboys

Getting close with Chaing Mai's ladyboys

Bicycle taxi driver resting in Chiang Mai

Bicycle taxi driver resting in Chiang Mai

Wat Prathat Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai

Wat Prathat Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai

Cooking class in Chiang Mai

Cooking class in Chiang Mai

Muay Thai pre-fight dance

Muay Thai pre-fight dance

A young Muay Thai fighter awaits his bout

A young Muay Thai fighter awaits his bout

Washing elephants in the river at the Elephant Nature Park

Washing elephants in the river at the Elephant Nature Park

The White Temple in Chiang Rai

The White Temple in Chiang Rai

Monk painting pillars at the temple

Monk painting pillars at the temple

Peter

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Bangkok, Thailand

Bangkok and Hua Hin: A photo diary

A small sample of our favorite photos from central Thailand (Bangkok and Hua Hin):

Monk in Bangkok, Thailand

Monk in Bangkok, Thailand

Hua Hin, Thailand

Right down the road from where we lived in Hua Hin, Thailand

Bangkok, Thailand

Hua Hin beach, Thailand

Beach in Hua Hin, Thailand

Street vendor, Hua Hin, Thailand

Street vendor, Hua Hin, Thailand

Morning prayer on Hua Hin beach

Morning prayer on Hua Hin beach

Reclining Buddha, Bangkok

Reclining Buddha, Bangkok

Tuk Tuks in Hua Hin

Tuk Tuks in Hua Hin

Mmm....street food...

Mmm....street food...

The day's catch, Hua Hin

The day's catch, Hua Hin

Peter

 

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Meditating in Bali: A life-changing experience

NOTE: A shorter version of this article was published in the Globe and Mail on Saturday, February 11, 2012.

As I sit cross-legged on the hard wood floor of Taksu’s luxury yoga studio in Ubud, Bali, I’m trying my best to decipher the rambling of our scraggly-bearded and long-winded Balinese meditation teacher. I dare not meet his gaze as he scans the group for a confirmation that we are following his long-derailed train of thought.

“Kundalini is God. Buddha is God. Jesus is God. The earth is God. The sky is God. [...] You IS God…”, he finally says as his eyes widen, and he pauses for dramatic effect.

To my left, I notice Marina is fidgeting around; apparently the red ants have made their way to her as well.

After what seems like an eternity of non-sequiturs in broken English, punctuated only by rolling R’s, we are no closer to understanding anything about Kundalini mediation, the topic of our session.

This is certainly not what I had envisioned when I set out to learn to meditate in Indonesia’s most popular island, Bali. In “Eat, Pray, Love”, Julia Roberts’ character seemed to have no difficulty finding a Balinese healer and wise man.

So why were we having such difficulty?

Just last night, my taxi got lost in Ubud’s dark streets while trying to find a temple that offers a once a week free group meditation.

And now this nonsense?

Perhaps finally sensing our incomprehension, or more palatably our boredom, our Balinese ‘priest and healer’ announces: “Now we will begin Kundalini meditation.”

What follows is a confusing mixture of ill-timed breathing exercises, some talk of chakras, something to do with colours, and a lot of ant bites.

And to end off our session, our instructor yells “I love you bodiee!!!” as he enthusiastically hugs himself.

Feeling defeated in my mission to learn to meditate in one of the most magical places I’ve ever visited, Marina and I head out for a walk through Ubud’s rice terraces. The scenery is stunning, and yet I can’t stop thinking about our missed opportunity.

As we walk back into town on one of Ubud’s many cobbled stone streets, we pass a large temple on our right.

Suddenly, something forces me to stop in my tracks and turn around.

I can’t believe it.

“Marina! I found it! I found White Lotus!”

(4 days later)

White Lotus Meditation Studio

For the first time in my life, my mind is silent, free of thoughts.

Although it lasts for only a second, the experience is remarkable.

Slowly, the clear blue sky that was my mind during that moment again starts being invaded by clouds of thought.

However, like being in a movie theatre, where I watch various thoughts come into focus on the screen, I remain an observer. Rather than reacting to each passing thought, I can acknowledge it, briefly evaluate it, and if I choose to, gently push it away from consciousness.

It is just as Sandeh said it would be.

Just a few days ago, I had no idea how I would ever be able to silence the incessant thoughts constantly nagging for my attention.

As I slowly open my eyes, I become aware of our environment.

Marina is sitting to my left. Her legs are crossed, her hands rest on her thighs, and her eyes remain closed; she has yet to come out of her meditation.

Sitting across from us is Sandeh, our private meditation teacher and the owner of the White Lotus. She sits quietly, meditating as the rays of the setting sun pierce her long silver hair, giving her an otherworldly appearance.

The three of us are seated on cushions in the octagonal, open-air, roof-top, meditation studio, designed by Sandeh herself. Above the tall palm trees, the sky is painted with broad, overlapping strokes of orange, red and purple. To the northeast, the peak of a volcano is visible above the tree line. The smell of burning incense permeates the air, as distant sounds of traditional Balinese music come and go with the passing breeze.

This moment would make Elizabeth Gilbert jealous.

As I wait for Marina and Sandeh to come out of their meditation, I realized we found everything we wanted and so much more in Ubud.

In a way it’s almost comical: a Polish-Canadian and Russian-Canadian learning to meditate from an Italian-German in Bali.

And yet, I wouldn’t change a thing.

Meditating at White Lotus in Ubud

Meditating at the White Lotus in Ubud

You see, before we flew to Bali, I searched online to find the perfect place to learn to meditate. After some digging, I found a few reviews on Tripadvisor of a place called White Lotus, which sounded ideal: a small, unique place that taught meditation without invoking too much voodoo and discussion of spirituality. Unfortunately, no matter how hard I looked, I could not locate any contact information for this place: no email, no phone number, and not even an address. All I knew was that it was near the path towards the rice terraces and was owned by a woman named Sandeh. After several passes to and from the rice terraces without a sight of the White Lotus, I had nearly forgotten about it.

But thanks to my random discovery of a nearly invisible “White Lotus” sign a few days ago, we finally found what we were after.

When I later inquired about Sandeh’s motivation for keeping the White Lotus so elusive, she replied with a smile, “The right people always manage to find me.”

Our time with Sandeh at the White Lotus was easily the highlight of 4 months of traveling through SE Asia. And don’t get me wrong, we had a phenomenal time and met many wonderful people everywhere we went.

But there was simply something magical about that place that I am unable to articulate.

Every morning, after being gently woken by the warm sun, we would slide open our glass doors and walk out onto our private veranda overlooking a garden and koi pond directly below, and rice terraces in the distance.

Private veranda at White Lotus White Lotus garden.

After a healthy and inexpensive breakfast of fresh fruit juice, and a bowl of granola, yogurt, fresh fruit, and honey at a nearby restaurant, Marina would head out on the town to snap some pictures, while I went back to the White Lotus to read about and practice meditating in the garden.

Around 6 in the evening, Marina and I would head up to the rooftop to meet Sandeh for our nightly meditation lesson. On each occasion, Sandeh would guide us through another form of meditation.

At night, we would climb into our comfy bed, and fall asleep to the sounds of the waterfall just beyond the edge of White Lotus’ garden.

On our last night, after completing our final meditation, the three of us remained seated talking on the rooftop long after the sun had set. That conversation we shared under the starry Balinese sky remains my fondest memory of Bali, and one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

Late that night, the three of us exchanged hugs, as our eyes filled with tears.

Through some stroke of luck we made a connection with a kindred spirit who understood us completely. Possibly more so than anyone else ever has. And yet, Sandeh was a complete stranger just days ago.

“You’ll be back in Bali. I just have a feeling.”

Those were Sandeh’s last words to us, before we headed off to bed.

Somehow, I think she may have been right.

Peter

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Muai Thai in Cambodia

VIP seating at Muay Thai fights in Thailand and Cambodia

As we arrive via tuk tuk to what appears to be a huge mall parking lot in the outskirts of Phnom Penh, we catch sight of the bright lights illuminating the boxing ring in the distance.

On the suggestion of our Cambodian friend, Long, we’ve come to see Cambodia’s version of Muai Thai boxing, named Pradal Serey. Although the former style is more popular around the world thanks to the UFC, from what I can gather the Khmers’ (people of Cambodia) style of fighting was actually a precursor to Thailand’s Muay Thai.

The crowd surrounding the ring is substantial; on the periphery numerous locals are seated on their mopeds, in the middle layer hundreds of locals stand together, and finally an inner circle of seated spectators encircle the ring.

Muai Thai Fight in Phnom Penh, Cambodia

The crowd surrounding the ring (Phnom Penh, Cambodia)

 

Since we are late, and the fights have already started, I presume we’ll be viewing from a distance.

Instead, we all follow Long as he pushes through the crowd, and points to the only row of empty seats, directly next to the ring.

We all sit, and immediately become transfixed by the swift kicks, punches, knees and elbows of the Cambodians duking it out. The sound of the traditional fighting music played by a band of cross-legged men provides an eerie melody but sets the tempo for the movement of the fighters.

It is almost as they are dancing to the music; as the tempo of the music picks up, so does the intensity of the fighting.

However, this dance is bound to leave a few bruises.

As the first round ends, we notice both of the local cameramen have zeroed in their cameras directly on us.

“Long, why are the cameras on us?” I ask.

“They want to show the people watching at home, as well as the sponsors of the event how popular this is. If there are foreigners here, it must be good!”, Long replies as he bursts into his characteristic high-pitched chuckle.

Now I begin to understand why we were given VIP seating – we’re practically celebrities in Cambodia! Immediately, I feel a hint of guilt at the preferential treatment. Especially since we haven’t paid a penny to be here.

As the fights progress, a similar pattern emerges that Marina and I witnessed at a fight in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Namely, the pattern of “tough” guys with intense stares, big muscles, and excess bravado getting their asses handed to them by their slighter, unassuming, and seemingly weaker opponents.

In many instances, these surprising victories are achieved by severe knockouts and accompanied by plentiful blood. In other words, not only did the more physically intimidating contenders lose the bout, they lost BADLY.

You can almost see a fighter’s ego being deflated as he gets knocked down by a seemingly inferior opponent.

Muay Thai fight, Chiang Mai

Why you should never get into a fight (Chiang Mai, Thailand)

 

While I was already a pacifist, watching these fights certainly reiterated an important life lesson:

No matter how weak your opponent might look, they could kick your ass. Thus, avoid fights at any cost.

So if you’re ever in a confrontation, do your best to talk your way out of it.

Otherwise, if your opponent doesn’t respond to reason, run like hell!

Peter

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Longtail boats in Koh Phi Phi Lei (filming location for the movie "The Beach")

Phuket, Phang Nga, and Koh Phi Phi: A photo diary

A small sample of our favorite photos from southern Thailand (Phuket, Phang Nga, and Koh Phi Phi).

Sunset on Phuket's Kata beach

Sand crab on Kata beach, Phuket

Phuket Tuk Tuks

Beach bar on Kata beach, Phuket

Marina enjoying a beautiful sunset

Marina enjoying a beautiful sunset in Phuket

Us at 'James Bond' Island in Phang Nga Bay

Thai boy bathes outside at a floating village in Phang Nga Bay

Reclining Buddha in Suwan Khuha cave, Phuket

Longtail boats in Koh Phi Phi Lei (filming location for the movie "The Beach")

Us at The Beach; Koh Phi Phi Lei

Island crusing near Koh Phi Phi

Marina's favourite pose on Bamboo island

Peter

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Scuba diving in Phuket

With our BCDs (buoyancy control devices) inflated, we’re floating in Racha Island’s Bungalow bay, some 12 km south of Phuket. Alexia, our dive instructor explains our next practical test on the final day of our 4-day open water scuba diving course.

“Ok, once we descend to about 12 meters , you’ll completely remove your mask, swim 15 meters along the sea floor, put your mask back on and clear it.”

As we hear these instructions, Marina and I exchange nervous glances.

“Are you ready?” asks Alexia.

“Ready!” Marina and I respond in unison, hoping the volume of our response masks our trepidation.

Only 3 days ago, while doing the theory part of our course, the mere idea of breathing underwater made my palms sweaty. And yet, that is the least of our worries now.

Before we have time to contemplate any further, as if by instinct, we place our regulators in our mouths, raise the exhaust valve of our BCD’s above our heads, push the deflator button, and begin to sink under the water.

Once we’re all kneeling on the sandy sea floor, Alexia signals that I’ll be the first to go.

As instructed, I slowly remove my mask and instinctively close my eyes as the water rushes in. Although the regulator is still in my mouth, breathing through it while not sucking up water through my exposed nostrils is a challenge. I grasp the mask in my hand, and begin swimming.

Before I know it, Alexia is right beside me, tapping on my shoulder; I’ve covered the necessary distance. With both hands, I place the mask over my face, and secure the strap behind my head. Next I tilt the bottom part of the mask away from my face as I begin to blow air through my nose; an action that replaces the water in my mask with air. After a couple breaths, I can once again open my eyes and avoid the sting of the salty water.

Making an “o” using her thumb and index finger, Alexia signals successful completion. She shakes my hand, and swims over to Marina, who’s about to perform the same test.

After Marina and I do a few more tests, the fun finally begins as we go for an exploratory swim around the bay.

Marina and I swim along as John keeps a close eye on us in the background

 

Moving around through this foreign world, spotting honeycomb eels, porcupine fish, yellow box fish, sergeant majors, among others, I note how relaxed my breathing is, and how calm I have become.

So this is what scuba diving is all about.

When I was younger, I’d watch shows about sea life and often wonder whether the underwater world actually looked as brilliant as it did on television. Being naturally sceptical, I certainly had my doubts. However, this scepticism was quickly shattered during my first snorkelling experience in Cuba in 2001. As soon as my mask touched the water for the first time, I was stunned by how colourful and lively the underwater world really was. Since then, I have been absolutely mesmerized by underwater life and have taken every opportunity to snorkel on our travels.

Not surprisingly, I’ve wanted to learn to scuba dive for nearly a decade. A good friend of mine who also happened to be a scuba instructor even lent me a copy of the study guide so I could prepare to take the course. Sadly, that book sat and accumulated dust on our book shelf for years as we ploughed through our PhDs. And to be honest, I wasn’t particularly keen on learning to dive in the frigid and murky waters of Lake Ontario.

When we initially departed for Southeast Asia, getting our scuba diving certification was a top priority. As soon as we took our first steps on Phuket’s beautiful beaches and swam in the warm and crystal clear waters of the Andaman Sea, it was only a matter of time.

And now, resting on our boat ride back to Phuket, we revel in the satisfaction of having finally accomplished one of our long-term dreams. Also, we’re ecstatic to now be able to pursue another one of our dreams: diving the Great Barrier Reef!

Thanks to Phuket Scuba Club, and specifically to Alexia, John, and Nic for making one of our dreams come true. You guys were phenomenal instructors, and great friends. We hope to dive with all of you again!

Us with Nic and Alexia on our celebratory dinner:)

Peter

Note: Thanks to Alexia for taking the wonderful underwater photos

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Monkeying around in Southeast Asia

“I think I prefer seeing monkeys in the zoo”, I tell Marina while walking among the hundreds of curious and mischievous monkeys in Ubud’s Monkey Forrest in Bali, Indonesia.

We have been in Southeast Asia for about 2.5 months now and have managed to encounter monkeys on the road, on mountains, in parks, caves, cafes, temples, and beaches.

While I am all for monkeys living in their natural habitat rather than behind bars in a zoo, given the nature of these frisky primates I would personally prefer some degree of separation.

Nevertheless, due to the frequency with which we find ourselves surrounded by a group of monkeys, Marina and I have picked up a few safety tips from various locals.

Feeding monkeys near Hua Hin, Thailand.

For those of you planning on seeing monkeys in the wild here are a few quick pointers.

1) No Smiling:

Seriously. Even though their actions may be hilarious, it is better not to laugh, or even smile for that matter in a monkey’s presence. Since bearing teeth is a sign of aggression, you showing your teeth while smiling may send the wrong message.

2) No food or shiny objects on your person:

Monkeys are a curious and perceptive bunch and they may become particularly interested in you if you are wearing anything shiny (jewellery, sunglasses, etc.), have any food on you, or are holding something in your hand. The rule of thumb is this: if a monkey tries to take something from you, it’s best to let them have it rather than fighting them for it. Better yet, do not wear anything that might attract attention, and do not carry any food with you. Additionally, if you notice you are being stalked by a curious macaque, show them your open and empty palms and often they will immediately lose interest.

3) Keep clear of injured or dead monkeys:

On one particular occasion in Ubud, we came across a monkey that had just fallen out of a tree and was badly hurt, writhing in pain on the ground. Our natural instinct was to get close and see if we could help. Thankfully, one of the experienced park staff quickly stopped us from getting mulled by the onlooking monkeys. As was explained to us, approaching a hurt monkey is likely to incite an attack by the other members of that group. Thus, if you come across a hurt or dead monkey, best to give it space.

4) Back away slowly:

Finally, if you encounter an aggressive monkey, simply back away slowly while continuing to face them. Since turning your back is a sign of fear, such action may increase their confidence, potentially leading them to attack.

A showdown in progress.

Now that I’ve gotten you completely paranoid, please note that 99.9% of the time you’ll be absolutely fine. Despite our countless encounters (even when I fed a bucket of peanuts to a bunch of monkeys in Hua Hin’s Monkey Mountain) nothing even remotely dangerous ever occurred. And while we certainly witnessed a number of tourists freaking out when one or 3 monkeys jumped on them, no one ever got hurt. For the most part, the monkeys we came across were most often participating in any one of these 3 activities: eating, sex, or resting.

Just look at this face…

Awwww...

Peter

Note: As our few loyal readers may have noticed, this blog has been collecting cobwebs over the past few months. Let me assure you this silence was not due to a lack of adventures. For the past number of months we’ve been exploring Southeast Asia, and just recently settled into our next temporary home in New Zealand. As opposed to our travels through South America where I constantly updated the blog in nearly real-time, this time around I chose to experience everything as it happened without worrying how I could turn said experience into a blog post. But fear not! Thanks to my notes and Marina’s 10 000+ photos, we will be updating the blog with our most recent adventures over the next little while. Stay tuned!

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