Halong Bay Alternative: The Hilarious Misadventures of Plan B

Halong Bay Alternative: The Hilarious Misadventures of Plan B

“Imagine 2000 or more islands rising from the emerald waters of the Gulf of Tonkin and you have a vision of breathtaking beauty. Halong translates as ‘where the dragon descends into the sea’, and legend claims the islands of Halong Bay were created by a great dragon from the mountains. As it charged towards the coast, its flailing tail gouged out valleys and crevasses. When it finally plunged into the sea, the area filled with water, leaving only the pinnacles visible” –Lonely Planet Halong Bay: UNESCO world heritage site, the top attractions in the northeast of the country and the sole reason that some people come to Vietnam.  So naturally, one of the first things I did after arriving to Hanoi and dropping my stuff at the hostel, was to arrange a trip there.  All I had to do was return at 8 AM the next morning with an overnight bag, packed to spend one night on a boat on the Bay. After booking the tour, I returned to my hostel where a Polish couch surfer, working at a local hostel, waited for me on his motorbike.  We buzzed around the major city sights in a couple hours, hitting a couple parks, a lame temple, two lakes, the fancy shopping street and Ho Chi Minh mausoleum.  Although the sites were interesting, much of our day was spent darting honking motorbikes, squeezing through Vietnamese ladies wielding long poles carrying their produce and arguing with people about parking.  All of it confirmed my readiness to get out of the city and into some beautiful nature, even if it was on a boat  (apparently the scars from my recent sailing trip didn’t take too long to heal).    As we emerged from a shady seat in the park and blinked in the hot Vietnam sun, I commented, “It’s supposed to be monsoon season but it hasn’t rained on me during the day once.”  He replied, “Monsoons are worse in the South… if you made it through that without rain, you’re probably in the clear”.  Despite both of us sweating a bit in the sun, I smiled, “Maybe I’m finally finished bringing apocalyptic weather on vacation with me”.   [If you haven’t been following my adventures, my February trip to Peru brought rains that contributed to me slipping on a rock and breaking my arm, my April trip brought snow to Jordan and atypically freezing temperatures to Cyprus, my road trip through the United States in late May brought 40 tornadoes to the vicinity of Oklahoma City the night we stayed there and a snow storm that piled 5″ of snow and freezing rain to Colorado Springs and of course, my sailing trip in the Florida Keys brought a whole new set of storms] So after a night in Hanoi, falling asleep a lullaby of roaring motorbike motors, drunken tourists and shop owners trying to sell people things, I bounced out of bed and to the tourist office, ready for the sea.  I arrived early and asked the guy at the desk if I could leave my bag, grab some coffee then come back.  He shook his head no, tried to sputter some things and dialed the phone furiously, but his English wasn’t good enough to explain why he was denying me my caffeine fix.  I sighed and sat down.  Fortunately, a few seconds later, the lady who sold me the tour arrived on her motorbike, and panted as she took of her helmet (as if she had to pedal the bike herself).  “Typhoon.  There’s a typhoon in the Bay.  First typhoon of the season.  Tour is cancelled,” she huffed and puffed.  I asked if I could postpone the trip until tomorrow and she vigorously shook her head no, “all trips for next three days, cancelled.  Big storm”.  Seeing the disappointment on my face, she offered an alternative.  “We switch your Halong Bay tour to two day trips.  Almost the same as Halong Bay”.  She explained an itinerary with boats and mountains that I didn’t quite understand but still half asleep, having been denied coffee, I shrugged in slightly skeptical agreement. Plan B, Part 1: A Cranky Bus of Hot Tourists on a Death March to Trang An & Bai Dinh Pagoda I sat in her office for awhile… waiting 15 minutes, 30 minutes beyond the  supposed “8 AM pick-up time”.  She didn’t seem surprised that the vehicle hadn’t arrived but saw that I was getting antsy so she started showing me some of her favorite music videos.  Apparently this 31 year old Vietnamese lady with two kids had a big crush on the Russian equivalent of the High School Musical Star.  She blushed as she showed me...

The Rescue: The Climatic End to Sailing the Florida Keys (Part 2)

The Rescue: The Climatic End to Sailing the Florida Keys (Part 2)

If you are just learning about my sailing adventure, I’d recommend starting with the preface to how I end up spending two weeks on a sailboat with a guy I had never met followed by part 1 of my stories at sea.  The following describes the final moments of mour trip when things looked bleak but some adrenaline, ingenuity, the right companion and a stroke of luck got me safely to share.  I’ll close with a reflection on jumping into the deep end of a new experience and how it relates to where my life is going next. Setting the stage Back before we even set sail, when we were preparing the boat back at Boot Key Harbor, Brandon dropped me off at the marina one day to catch up on while he ran some errands to fill up the propane tank and such.  In the middle of checking my e-mails in a the marina common room, some wild winds started racing through the garage-sized doors throwing around newspapers.  A few seconds later, a deluge of rain crashed on the ceiling and my phone beeped with a text from Brandon, “On the boat, waiting for the storm to pass.  I’ll come get you as soon as it does.” As the rain poured and the winds blew, I happily typed away on my laptop for a couple hours before checking in with Brandon.  He picked up my phone call and briefly summarized, “Minor emergency.  Mostly taken care of.  I’ll come back to the marina when I can”.  An hour or two later, he arrived, dressed in a rain jacket with a massive appetite, “so just after I texted you, a gust of wind flipped the dingy, submerging the motor.  It took a couple hours but Fernando and I were able to recover most of the stuff that drifted down shore”.  Apparently word travels fast around a marina because as we stuffed our faces on creole rice AND a sandwich, everyone already seemed to know about the incident.  Brandon’s friend Joe arrived with some motor oil, other people were texting him with advice for reviving a submerged motor and everyone wanted to hear the detailed version of the story.  I watched the exchange of information with a smile.  Brandon always jokingly called his sailing buddies “a bunch of bums that just want to have fun” but honestly, I was incredibly impressed with the boating community.  Most of the people we talked to had left secure and stable jobs to pursue a life at sea, because they found dealing with the daily challenges and victories made life a lot more interesting and rewarding.  They were always willing to lend a hand, provide advice and share skills they picked up over the years because there’s no exact science to sailing and, no matter how nice their boat is, because everyone has been stranded at some point. After our feast, we were able to get the dingy operable enough to get halfway back to the Aloha and one of Brandon’s Australian friends was happy to give us a tow the rest of the way, dispensing more advice as he dropped us off.  With a bit more tinkering, Brandon got the dingy working to escort us to a delectable enchilada party on his friend’s boat and back.  Since it was time to set sail the next day, we tied it to the foredeck and didn’t have to worry about it until we got to Dry Tortugas. When we wanted to come ashore to visit the fort, we assembled the dingy but couldn’t get the motor to start.  We spent hours taking it apart, replacing the spark plug, cleaning the clutch, even lighting the fuel on fire to test our gasoline to no avail.  It wasn’t a huge deal when we were anchored at Dry Tortugas because we had oars to row the dingy to the Fort, friends on a James Bond boat to give us a tow during a miniature afternoon storm and we had a big boat with a working motor.   Our remaining goals for the trip was to return to Key West and find a way to get me to shore… the first part was relatively simple since the motor on the Aloha keeping us moving forward on a second, stormy night sail and working like a charm until we were in eyesight of the anchorage at Key West. Anchoring Under Sail After two days of empty ocean, entering the Key West channel is a shock. Party catamarans are packed to the gills with intoxicated tourists. Motorboats blaze through the waters, flying paragliders like flags. Jet skis blaze by...

A Million Miles At Sea: Ups and Downs of Sailing The Florida Keys (Part 1)

A Million Miles At Sea: Ups and Downs of Sailing The Florida Keys (Part 1)

The vision: “The stars at sea are unlike anything you’ve ever experienced.  180 degrees of complete illumination, hundreds of specks of light you never knew existed if you’ve only looked at the sky near cities.  And night sails are the best way to experience it… the winds are steady, the seas are calm, all you need to do is put the boat on autopilot and enjoy the view from the foredeck.” The reality: “You know what to do if one of us goes overboard, right?  You know where the ropes are?  You know how to press “man overboard” on the GPS?  First, you need to try to save me yourself, then you radio for help.  You know where the whistle is on the life jacket?  You’ll have to whistle like hell because the reality of the situation is, with the boat rocking like this, no light from the moon, the rain, there’s a very slight chance, I’ll even be able to see you out there”, Brandon hollers over the sounds of the gusting winds, clanking of the sails and crashing of the waves.  I grimace in a failed attempt to fake a confident smile and not puke, peering out of a crack in the cabin door where I have been placed to shout GPS directions since the torrential rains made it impossible to keep the tablet outdoors.  Brandon is decked out in the stereotypical sea captain yellow rubber overalls and headlamp, chained to the base of the wheel and has just given up trying to fight the sea.  We both hope that heading 270 degrees west won’t send us into any wrecks or rocks since that’s the only direction the boat will go.  In the cabin, my panicked thoughts race between praying that Brandon doesn’t get thrown overboard, trying to hold down my backpacker-bean-dinner and reprimanding my naivety for getting on a sailboat without realizing it could be the death of me.  Brandon calls me on deck to steer for a bit to relieve himself, realizes we’ve been dragging a crab trap for the past three hours and shouts over the wind, comes up with a  plan to remove it so we can move the wheel again.  He dangles over the edge, waving the gaff hook in the darkness to unhook the contraption.  He lets out a victorious yelp as we leave some of the trap behind, I feel the wheel get a little freer and tried to wiggle more strategically through the wild waves.  Apparently, I had been forgetting to breathe, release a huff of air and surprised myself with a weird sense of peace about the situation because despite all the chaos, he had a plan and I knew we were going to be ok. He takes over the wheel and I lie on the bench to calm my nausea, convinced that I would be too nervous and gripping on to the side of the boat too tight to sleep.  However,  at some point, I fall asleep on the bench, hanging on to side cabinet for dear life, and am surprised when the sunlight wakes me to significantly calmer seas.  A bit confused to awaken in such relaxed surroundings, I squint and see Brandon whistling to himself, relaxed behind the wheel.  “Good morning, sunshine” he greets me.  If our life belongings weren’t scattered around the floor of the cabin below and deck of the boat still damp, I’d barely believe what just happened.  Still overwhelmed, I give thanks that I was still alive, albeit a bit wary for another day at sea. “The difference between a fairy tale and a sea tale? A fairy tale starts with ‘Once upon a time’. A sea tale starts with ‘This ain’t no $hit’!” – Edith Widder If you read my preface sailing post about the events leading up to me spending two weeks on a sailboat with a guy I had never met, you’ll remember that I undertook this adventure wanting to feel alive.  Well, seeing my life flash before my eyes several times certainly accomplished that mission.  You’ll also remember that I stepped aboard knowing nothing about sailing but on a trip like this, I certainly learned a lot… fast!  When Brandon and I embarked on the week long sail from Marathon, Florida to Dry Tortugas National Park and back up to Key West, I had no idea what to expect.  Supposedly, we experienced more disasters in 7 days than he had in four months of owning the S/V Aloha.  Maybe it was bad luck?  Maybe sailing and I aren’t meant to be friends?  Either way, I thought I’d share with all you some of the stories of our sail, some pieces of...

Preface to Setting Sail: How The Anticlimactic End To My PhD Led Me to Board a Stranger’s Boat

Preface to Setting Sail: How The Anticlimactic End To My PhD Led Me to Board a Stranger’s Boat

Two weeks on a sailboat with a guy I had never met…. what could possibly go wrong? And why does everyone turn into my mother when I told them about my plan? Well, I had to talked to the guy enough to know there was more to sailing than drinking margaritas and bikini parties on deck so I was not completely naïve. From my singular one hour sailing experience over a decade ago on a Sunfish in Cuttyhunk, Massachusetts, I knew that you need to watch your head for swinging booms and the wind may not behave when you try to dock, which may result in embarrassing photographs of a spread-eagle tumble into the sea if your parents inconveniently decide to watch you dock. So I knew enough to know that things do not always work perfectly when you’re on a boat. Why did I go? That’s a better question, one that I barely asked myself when I signed up for this. Back then, it felt like something I had to do. Reflecting back, I think the decision had some logical grounds in recent life events. I just finished my PhD in physics back in March. This goal of getting a doctorate had once seemed stimulating, challenging and worthwhile and propelled my life for the past five years. This winter involved an awful couple months, locked in a dark room, one-handedly, painstakingly producing a pile of papers that my advisor did not even read in its entirety. For what? To earn a piece of paper that I didn’t even bother removing from its envelope? To qualify to walk across a stage in a city that I left without a backward glance within 24 hours of finishing my oral defense? So I could have the option of buying a funny hat that I could potentially wear one day if I pursue a career path that does not seem as appealing as it once did? In short, I accomplishing this life milestone did not lead to any feelings of excitement, pride, satisfaction or confidence about a new life direction. It just left me feeling incredibly burnt out and relieved that I would never receive an e-mail from the university thesis editor about margins ever again. Since pursuing something logical didn’t seem to lead to anything, I wanted to spend my last couple weeks in the United States doing something completely illogical. I wanted to learn a skill that I probably won’t ever use again. I wanted to spend a few weeks trying something that I was skeptical that I would even like and doubtful that I would be good at. I wanted to spend time with a crazy person who had accomplished the American dream with a house, a truck, a nice lawn, his own business then promptly sold it all to buy a boat. He was willing to risk all that he earned for a childhood dream, despite having barely any experience sailing beyond hopping on boats in the lakes of Oklahoma. I knew he was nuts—he used exclamation points to write about running a continuous 54.92 miles— but he seemed happy and I wanted to find out how to put my life back on track for a fulfilling existence while my future was still up in the air. And I wanted to feel alive again. I’m going to save the intimidating task of summarizing our days at sea for another post but that’s how I ended up on a dark dock in Marathon, Florida, waiting to be dingy-ed to the 30′ sailing vessel that would be my home for the next couple weeks.  After a brief moment of thinking “what am I doing here?”, I reassured myself with one of my favorite quotes and life mottos then proceeded to hop aboard. “Twenty years from now you will be more disppointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – Mark Twain Here’s a sneak preview of the trip: there’s nothing like a lot of adventure, a little romance and a few near death experiences to get the adrenaline flowing and the blood pumping. I’m not sure if the trip revealed the answer for how I can accomplish a happy life but it did lead to lots of laughter, some tears, deep conversations, sing-a-longs and an ability to treasure every small moment. Stay tuned for the details about the trip. Song of the Moment: Ship to Wreck– Florence & the Machine (Brandon hated when I played this on the boat...

The Art Of Appreciating Small Moments on Road Trip Across The US Midwest

The Art Of Appreciating Small Moments on Road Trip Across The US Midwest

Oklahoma, Iowa, Nebraska, Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas. These mighty Midwestern states somehow never made the cut for family road trips, my own independent explorations but I was determined to see them before moving to South Africa for a research position in South Africa. Seeing all 48 continental states had been on my bucket list from the beginning but the dream became reality when I found a shotgun rider to accompany me on the adventure. I had met Kim when I was teaching at a university in Sonipat, India. I had glimpsed a flash of blonde hair down the hallway and thought I was dreaming, since I thought I was the only one. One morning at 6 AM, she bopped into the gym when I half-heartedly ellipticalling and thoroughly immersed in rationalizing the story line of the Bollywood music video that brought the team captain and his cheerleader girlfriend from their high school football field into the depths of an Amazonian jungle. Her voice interrupted my reverie, “so I must ask, what are you DOING here?”. I explained my nerd camp gig, she explained that she was a law professor and, as the two blondes at OP Jindal University, we were instant friends. We had a few adventures in India, involving take-out Kentucky Fried Chicken, American movie nights with a giant stuffed tiger, a hardcore yoga class and a lot of street side chai. Long story short… an unidentified health ailment sent her home from India early and the near death experience convinced her to take some time for soul searching and adventures. We kept in touch and I mentioned my impending road trip. Despite being an American born and bred, she had never been on a road trip and jumped on the invitation to join. I hesitated before I allowed her to enlist, “You know we’re going to have to go to some random places, right? I want to finish the 48 states and I don’t think I saved the best for last”. She didn’t hesitate for a millisecond, “sign me up! I can’t drive but I can DJ”.  And thus, the Great American Road Trip was born. After some arbitrary route planning on my part, before I knew it I was at the airport in Pittsburg, PA, picking up Kim and her suitcase full of “Southwesternwear” (i.e. leather and tassels), body glitter, sidewalk chalk and all sorts of fun surprises.  After a quick hug, we set out without much of a plan besides finding coffee and donuts as soon as humanly possible.  I’m not going to delve into the details of our adventures that followed because (a) it would be impossible (b) it’s not important.   However, traveling some of the most boring states in America did teach us some important lessons about road tripping, and more importantly, lessons about life.  I’m going to share a few of them: 1)  It’s The People That Make The Journey Worthwhile Our trip didn’t include any epic national parks, beautiful coasts, big cities or extremely noteworthy destinations so especially on a trip like this, people make the miles worthwhile. “Road trips are the equivalent of human wings.  Ask me to go on one, anywhere.  We’ll stop in every small town and learn the history, and stories, feel the ground and capture the spirit.  Then we’ll turn it into our own story that will live inside our history to carry with us, always.  Because stories are more important than things” -Victoria Erickson Some had legendary reputations– for example, at Wild Turkey distillery, we got to hang out with Jimmy Russell, the longest master distiller in the world.  For someone know as the “master distiller’s master distiller”, Jimmy was incredibly humble and down-to-earth, easy-going guy who laughed as his childhood dream to leave the family distilling business for a future in baseball.  After distilling bourbon for 61 years, the profession still hasn’t gotten old, despite having plans to be flown to Japan and Australia, he still seems most satisfied in his simple Kentucky home, making bourbon and making people happy. Others, we just stumbled on.  Route 66 was a jackpot for finding interesting people.  Our foray into Kansas involved a stop to the abandoned mining town of Galena.  After our obvious out-of-town vibe turned every head in the main town diner, Kim directed us further down Main Street to an old Kan-O-Tex station which was reconstructed to look like the set of the Pixar movie Cars (acknowledging that Galena inspired Radiator Springs, the setting of the film).  We said hi to “Tow Tater”, a reconstructed car outside, and poked our heads into the shop where we were warmly greeted by Melba Rigg, the voice of “Melba the...

Impressions of Israel, Expressed Through Street Art

Impressions of Israel, Expressed Through Street Art

“I don’t know if it was just the shock of the new, or a fascination waiting to be discovered, but something about Israel and the Middle East grabbed me in both heart and mind. I was totally taken with the place, its peoples and its conflicts. Since that moment, I have never really been interested in anything else. Indeed, from the first day I walked through the walled Old City of Jerusalem, inhaled its spices, and lost myself in the multicolored river of humanity that flowed through its maze of alleyways, I felt at home. Surely, in some previous incarnation, I must have been a bazaar merchant, a Frankish soldier perhaps, a pasha, or at least a medieval Jewish chronicler.” -Thomas L. Friedman Disclaimer: I don’t pretend to know anything about politics but anything that has to do with the Middle East inevitably gets political.  I openly admit I’m not even remotely an expert on this issues so I’ll do my best to convey what I’ve witnessed and heard and have no intentions of making strong political proclamations.  I’ll try to base most of my claims in pictures. Israel… what a place.  This modern state feels like an idealogical pre-teen in shoes too big for her feet, blowing bubbles and dispensing free hugs outside a supermarket while the world falls apart around it.  I don’t know if that’s a good metaphor.  It’s one of the strangest places I’ve been and despite all my efforts to figure out this country, it’s still hard to articulate why.  Obviously, some of the weirdness comes from the founding principles of the nation: as one of the youngest countries designated as a Jewish State in 1948 to be as a home for people persecuted from everywhere.  So it houses an incredibly random crowd, from really Orthodox Jews with curls by their ears, to post-army, pot-loving people with strange piercings to non-religious Jews who are proud of their past but barely visit the synagogue.  In its 60 years of existence, it has quickly become home people of various backgrounds, languages, cultures and foods.  Most occupants are Jewish, with American or European heritage. But then there’s Arabs, most of whom are Muslim but there’s Arab Christians, Greek Catholics, Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic.  Part of this tremendous diversity is reflected in the food, which features falafel, hummus, kebab and sabich (my new favorite- an eggplant, hummus, tahini, boiled egg, parsley pita creation) from the Middle East, couscous and grilled meats from North Africa but also schnitzel and pastries from Jews that fled Old World Europe. So it’s a bit disorienting to be in a place with all these random people running around, all kind of loud and obnoxious and in your face, the Israeli way.  There’s Orthodox Jews hitchhiking.  Female, teenage soldiers putting on blush and lipstick while wearing army uniforms.  Schoolboys in yarmulkes elbowing each other to get into the synagogue in a boisterous buzzing pack. Crazy drivers, so much noise, but if you speak above a whisper on a bus… how dare you?!?! (I got yelled at three times haha).  All of this insane activity is set to a backdrop of a Mediterranean coast which implies relaxation but it’s hard to relax when you’re constantly going through checkpoints and there’s kid soldiers everywhere. Speaking of soldiers, security is yet another one of the many contradictions in Israel.  Based on my past encounters with Israeli security, Israel is one of the most tightly monitored and controlled countries (rightfully so!).  Despite being so uptight that they would not let me leave the country with my travel sized contact solution, when it comes to day-to-day operations, Israeli police are surprisingly laid back.  Drinking in public is supposedly illegal but it’s common to see people drinking at the beach or on Rothschild Boulevard in Tel Aviv (I don’t know how anyone can afford to drink at a bar, with beers usually starting at $7 for ~0.33 liters).  Marijuana is also supposedly off-limits but according to my friend, “everyone smokes pot” and clubs are clogged with it.  Graffiti is still illegal but municipal authorities usually turn a blind eye.  Furthermore, it’s no secret that most Israelis can successfully schmooze their way of speeding tickets and other minor violations with the local police. And then there’s the infrastructure.  Certain aspects of Israel are extremely modern and Westernized. As a country in a barren desert with few natural resources and water supply, the people had to be creative to survive and they are.  Israel has the largest number of startups per capita and the highest proportion of scientists, engineers and technicians worldwide.  Israeli companies have invented voice mail, anti-virus software, Uber app, electronic vehicle batteries, Video On Demand, and the list goes on and on… While this list (and the high...