Monthly Archives: February 2013

The Great Manta Race

Tanks on boat

I hoisted my scuba gear onto the dive boat. After a crowded dive earlier, this one promised to be less crowded: just a German diver and me, plus divemaster Netto and driver Giovanni.

As we cruised toward the dive site, I attached my regulator to the air tank while discussing Berlin flight schedules with my fellow diver. The engines wound down at the site. I watched Netto preparing to attach the boat to the buoy, when he turned my direction and started gesturing wildly. He ran to the back of the boat and barked, “No time for gear! Snorkels and cameras, and jump in the water!” We did as we were told- splash!

Frantically paddling behind Netto, I had no idea what we were looking for. We made our way into the shallows near shore and bobbed in the waves, eyes scanning and cameras ready. Whatever was about to swim by, I mused, had better be pretty cool.

Nothing swam by.

Netto seemed confused. He shouted back to Giovanni on the boat in the local language, Papiamentu. After an urgent-sounding exchange, Netto rocketed back toward the boat (he can swim surprisingly fast for a big dude). As our trio neared the vessel, he said, “No time to climb in. Hang on.”

The boat lurched forward, and I found myself being dragged behind a dive boat, clutching a thick rope. What are we looking for, I shouted to Netto. “Manta ray,” he replied. He had spotted the large, black and white creature swimming along in shallow water, but by the time we swam over, it had passed. Now we were racing ahead of it, hoping to get into place in time for a sighting.

As the boat dragged us through the salty water, Netto’s hand slipped slowly down the rope, which pushed the German’s hand down the rope, which pushed my hand toward the end of the rope. There was no danger- I could simply let go- but I wanted to see this ray!

In Thailand, diving the Koh Bon Ridge, Karen and I had enjoyed a spectacular show as four huge manta rays circled around us (as we described in this video). Karen was above it snorkeling, while I watched from below.

Back in Bonaire, just as my fingers were about to slide off the rope, the boat stopped and we were off like a shot, swimming again toward the shore. We had barely gotten into position when we were rewarded with a manta ray fly-by.

Seeing manta rays, stingrays, turtles and the like always fills me with wonder, watching them effortlessly cut through the water as we gangly humans flail about trying to get a look.

Watchful eye

Leaping ahead once more (aboard the boat this time), we came to rest at the Kalli’s Reef site and got into our scuba gear. Underwater, hovering in the shallows, we waited for the manta ray for about five minutes before giving up and continuing with our scheduled dive. That one glimpse would be all for today.

It was worth the race.

Let’s Get Wet

Martijn

Meet Martijn, my Dutch (of course) scuba instructor in Bonaire. I headed back to class, this time for my Advanced Open Water certification, which involves five dives at the resort’s house reef. Lucky for me, Martijn also shared his expertise at spotting interesting underwater inhabitants, including a hawksbill turtle.

After attaining my new certification, I was ready to venture beyond the house reef to some of Bonaire’s famous dive sites. Being carless and buddyless (Karen only snorkels), I was at the mercy of Captain Don’s boat schedule, which turned out to be unfortunate. One day, I signed up for the 2:00 pm trip, since its destination sounded better than the 11:00 am trip’s, only to find out that the 2:00 was cancelled. I was told this at 11:05, just as the boat full of happy divers was disappearing on the horizon.

At the beginning of our Bonaire week, I mentioned to the scheduler that I would love to dive the wreck of the Hilma Hooker. He nodded and waved me away, saying, “Yes, yes, I usually schedule that mid-week.” He scheduled it for Friday… the one day I couldn’t dive (you can’t dive 24 hours before flying, because your body needs to rid itself of excess nitrogen). No Hilma Hooker for me.

A boat's eye view of Captain Don's resort

A boat’s eye view of Captain Don’s resort

Never fear: despite these missteps, Karen and I got on that boat several times, including a couple dives/snorkels off the small island of Klein Bonaire, with its abundant coral.

Underwater camerman

Of course, I snapped a few photos.

I also did two night dives: one with a newfound buddy, George, and one using fluorescent light, which causes certain living things to glow eerily, completely changing the appearance of the undersea environment.

Night divers

Prepping for a night dive with George

At the risk of making my pix look amateurish by comparison, I encourage you to check out Bon Photo’s gallery of Bonaire images, to see how the pros see the seas. Hmm, I wonder how much an SLR and underwater housing go for on eBay…?

Next Stop: Bonaire

Bon-where? That’s what I wanted to know.

With the international and US legs of our world tour complete, Karen and I found a bit of cash rattling around at the bottom of our our once-mighty travel fund. Enough for one more excursion.

I haven’t been scuba diving since Thailand (really, it’s been almost a year?), so Karen suggested a diving-focused trip. I asked around at a meeting of Milwaukee’s own Badger State Dive Club, and Bonaire was mentioned. Then I spotted the name in a diving magazine. Then in a Lonely Planet guidebook, in close proximity to the phrase “the Caribbean’s best diving.”

We’re going to Bonaire. In other words, from this…

15° F

15° F

to this…

85° F

85° F

This small island lies about 50 miles north of Venezuela; add in neighboring Aruba and Curaçao, and you have the Dutch Antilles… well, you did, until Aruba became a separate country, Curaçao a constituent country, and Bonaire a special municipality, all within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. These post-colonial arrangements are always so complicated.

Welcome to Bonaire

Bonaire attracts vacationers with many native tongues and, apparently, men with male pattern baldness

Let’s put geopolitics aside, which is easy to do once you step into the humid air outside Flamingo Airport’s pink terminal. Bonaire is all about scuba diving. The waters surrounding the island have been protected since 1979, which makes them an ideal habitat for coral, turtles, dolphins, and other aquatic animals. Back on land, there are dive shops, dive resorts, restaurants to eat at between dives, cars to rent as transport to dive sites, and bars to drink at after diving.

And salt. The island’s other main industry is salt.

Ready for a whole lotta margaritas

Ready for a whole lotta margaritas

We’re staying at Captain Don’s Habitat, named after beloved local character Captain Don Stewart. An early promoter of marine conservation, he was instrumental in the creation of the Bonaire Marine Park and the island’s network of permanent moorings (making it unnecessary for boats to drop anchor onto fragile coral).

And on Monday nights, you can meet him.

Captain Don

I asked if he’s Dutch or American, and he replied that he’s from Hollywood. He motioned for me to lean in closer. “If I was going to give the US an enema,” he rasped, “Hollywood is where I’d stick the hose.”

Nearing ninety years old, he’s still a colorful character.

Captain Don’s place qualifies either as a scruffy resort or a fancy hotel, depending on your point of view.

Having stayed in some truly sketchy lodging on our travels, we’re not complaining. And the rum punch helps.

IMG_6877 rum punch

Next Stop: Greatest Hits

Leaving Singapore

And just like that, it was over. The trip we had anticipated for a decade, saving money and scouring guidebooks, selling our stuff and packing our bags. It took us to places we thought we’d go, and places we didn’t. We found challenges and rewards all along the way.

This blog is a lasting record of our trip, and there are more travels to come. Next up, join us on the Caribbean island of Bonaire, where most of our adventures take place in or under the water.

In the mean time, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the 300+ posts, 3200+ comments, 200+ video clips, and who-knows-how-many photos we’ve posted. Where to start, when we feel nostalgic or a newcomer is curious? With our greatest hits, of course!

Below are some of the posts we got the most feedback on. Which of your favorites are missing? Please tell us in the comments, and help us come up with the best of Next Stop: World… so far.

Our blog got a boost when we appeared in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, and later in some regional Wisconsin newspapers.

In Japan, we crammed into a capsule hotel and braved the Kishiwada Danjiri Festival.

Ken OK diving

We sold our house and went scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef… on the same day. I was thrilled to spy koalas in the wild, while Karen got her kicks from a platypus sighting Down Under.

In New Zealand, we cheered the All Blacks to victory in the Rugby World Cup. How could we visit the home of bungy jumping without some extreme sports: in our case, OGO and the bungy swing.

From bossy, bossy Singapore, we ventured into Malaysia, culminating in the most talked-about week of our trip: my stay in a Malaysian hospital.

Modern-day Indiana Joneses at the end of the day

In Cambodia, we marveled at the ruins of Angkor Wat… and the startling variety of items Cambodians can carry on their motorbikes. Biking along the Mekong River, we could only fit a few stalks of krolan.

Elephants in Thailand gobbled pineapples from our hands, while we gobbled all sorts of delicious food in Chiang Mai.

In India, while I toured a Mumbai slum, Karen was plotting a great escape in Jaipur. Reunited, we performed a puja ceremony in the Ganges River (but didn’t brush our teeth in it).

In Nepal, we faced down a rhino and caught a glimpse of the world’s tallest peak.

IMG_3517-group

Last stop: China, where our friend Chris and Angie joined us for preserved propaganda, baffling menus, and a toboggan ride down from the Great Wall.

And, of course, there were the toilets. I posted porcelain profiles from Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, India, and Nepal.

Karen, meanwhile, recorded her logistical and cultural observations as we departed JapanSingapore, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, India, Nepal, and China.

Home for the summer, we caught up with friends and dined with our fan club. Then it was off to the American Southwest, to hike the Grand Canyon, marvel at a sky filled with hot-air balloons, and launch pumpkins from air cannons.

Fiery tourists

What would you add to our Greatest Hits? Chime in below, and thanks for coming along on our travels!

Last Stop: Home

Now go home

Our trip is coming to an end, and our journey back to Wisconsin gave us the harsh message that winter is on its way. We left sunny Las Vegas on a comfortably warm morning, driving through Utah and ending in Grand Junction, Colorado. For every hour or so we drove, the temperature dropped. Eventually we came to a higher elevation mountain pass and hit a snowstorm. Our first storm in over 18 months. It was exciting, beautiful, and a bit scary, all at the same time.

Snowstorm rising

As we drove home, we reminisced about the past seven weeks, visiting our beloved national parks and seeing dear friends. The magic of the mountains and mystery of the red rocks lingering in our hearts. Grounding, peaceful, ancient, awe-inspiring. Plus Navajo Tacos in every restaurant. Milwaukee seems a little less inspiring than the Southwest. However, the constant movement made me itchy again for a home base, with a kitchen, ready for cooking. So we pressed on through Colorado, Nebraska, and Iowa.

No Name

The impending winter sent us into a melancholy mood as it signaled the end of our long-term travel. Once back in Milwaukee, we will have to start thinking about what’s next. A dream we had been saving and planning for for over ten years is coming to a close. A dream that didn’t go quite as planned. A dream that forever changed the way we look at the world and ourselves.

While we may not be jet-setting right now, we have more to share from our travels. There’s always a Next Stop.

Stay tuned.

Signs of the Times

Did Disneyland. Lived through Death Valley. Time for Karen and me to reunite in Las Vegas before heading home from our Southwest tour.

It was the middle of the week and hotel rates were low, so we stayed a few days. What was the best thing about our stay- the gambling? Cirque du Soleil’s Love? The buffet at Caesar’s Palace?

The Neon Museum. It’s been around for a while, in a low-key way, restoring old signs around Fremont Street.

With the opening of its new visitor center just days before our arrival, the museum is making a much bigger splash as the repository for the neon (and non-neon) signs of Vegas’ past.

Tour guide Ian walked us through the boneyard, regaling us with the history of the signs (the Young Electric Sign Company leased signage to the casinos, reusing elements of older displays when possible) and the casinos (Moulin Rouge was the first integrated hotel casino in the US; African-Americans were not allowed into other Vegas casinos unless they worked there).

I love the look of old-timey signage. Add in some abuse from the elements, and these displays take on a lot of character.

We did see Love, and the buffet at Caesar’s was amazing, but the weekend was approaching and the road was beckoning.

Las Vegas in the rearview mirror officially means we’re on our way home.

IMG_5642 Vegas sign

To Boldly Go… to South Central L.A.

When I arrived in L.A., my friend David and I headed straight for the USC campus, to watch the ill-fated USC-Oregon game. As we walked toward the coliseum, David gestured at a large metal building and made an offhand remark, “The space shuttle is in there.”

That got my attention.

When the US space shuttle fleet was retired in 2011, the California Science Center was one of the venues selected to receive a decommissioned bird.

Shuttle N The Hood

Shuttle N The Hood

Endeavor, the last orbiter built, arrived in California via 747 on September 21st, after which it was famously driven through the streets of South Central L.A., requiring that telephone lines be removed and trees be trimmed. At the moment, it is sitting in a warehouse while funds are raised for its permanent home.

I want to go to there.

David and I booked our tickets (they’re not even charging patrons to see it, so fundraising must not be too great a problem) and hightailed it back to USC’s neighborhood.

Walking through an exhibit about the shuttle’s history- key components were built in California- I discovered a special connection to this shuttle… my shuttle. You see, it first rocketed off the Florida launchpad on my birthday in 1992.

Endeavour's first flight

Finally, we ventured into the hangar and saw it. Endeavour.

DCIM100GOPRO

It’s huge, it’s fascinating, and it’s accessible- you can walk all around and even under it.

As I circled the orbiter, I overheard people saying, “It’s too bad that the shuttle isn’t flying anymore.” But keep in mind that the incredibly expensive shuttle program never met its goal of drastically driving down the cost of moving people and hardware into space. I’m a huge fan of the space program and get weak in the knees at a photo of the big blue marble from space. Yet I’ve also seen hungry people in Milwaukee and a sea of trash in Nepal. It seems to me that we need to think long and hard about how we allocate our high-flying resources when there are so many needs down here.

Endeavour will eventually be returned to its “natural” position when it is raised to point at the heavens and a new $200 million facility is built around it.

It was a great thrill to get a view of a real, live space shuttle before it’s even settled into its new home. Although the shuttle doesn’t do anything, I kept walking around it and examining it from different angles. After a while, it got a bit ridiculous, with me taking “just one more look” while David glanced toward the door.

I finally tore myself away from this majestic bird, this spaceship that carried the hopes and dreams of a nation into the heavens.

IMG_5105 flag tiles

The Somewhat Pleasantest Place on Earth

Disneyland by night

I remember my first trip to Disneyland clearly. On the big family vacation out west in 1985, we happened to arrive in Anaheim the evening before the 30th anniversary of the park’s opening. So on our very first day at Disneyland, they threw a huge party. It was a happy day at the self-proclaimed Happiest Place on Earth.

I haven’t been back since. The sprawling Disney and Universal parks in Orlando have so much more to offer (not to mention Fuji-Q, Cedar Point, and my hometown favorite, Kennywood).

Plenty has changed since 1985 and my host David has a yearlong pass, so it was time to revisit the magic.

Muppet*Vision 3D

Our first destination: the California incarnation of Muppet*Vision 3D. My first reaction: disappointment. At Florida’s Disney World, the Muppets have a city block to themselves, with a fountain, hot air balloon, and gift shop encircling the theater. At Disneyland, the Muppet Theater is crammed into a back alley where everything else is closed during the day (Disneyland’s red light district?).

3D film vault

Though the audience was small, we happily watched the 3D movie. Twice. This is the project Jim Henson was working on when he died in 1990, so seeing his last performance of Kermit is something of a pilgrimage for me. With the success of The Muppets, even I feel that the characters are due for a new attraction, yet I’ll be sad when Muppet*Vision closes someday.

Onward, to attractions new and old! Frankenweenie, Cars, Space Mountain, the Haunted Mansion.

And the other reason I’m here: to experience the revamped Star Tours motion simulator. I managed to set aside my fanboy misgivings (characters from the prequels, overly-digital visual effects, etc.) and enjoy the ride. The scenes change randomly, so David and I started riding it once an hour to see as many variations as we could. Five journeys later, I can tell you that Hoth is the best planet to visit. In a nice coincidence, I was the spy on my first ride (those who have been on it will understand).

Every time we passed Sleeping Beauty’s castle, I did a doubletake. It’s so tiny! Compared to Disney World, everything here is a little more cramped and a little less grand. Then again, after a morning of Muppets and an afternoon of Star Wars, our Disney day turned out just fine.

Mini castle

P.S. Ever wondered what the second-happiest place on earth is? It’s Daviddibbleland, of course!