Playing Switzerland

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There are few countries that live up to their reputation. With stunning snow-capped mountain ranges that lead into lush, green valleys; efficient public transportation networks and, ancient historical cities that seamlessly merge past with present. This is Switzerland; it is just as beautiful, international – and expensive – as you would expect.

We spent a total of 10 days in this gorgeous country hiking the Bernese Oberland, watching guild parades in Zurich and walking the promenade of the ‘Swiss Rivera’ in Montreux. You can see our full itinerary as well as tips for making the most out of your Swiss holiday here.

Other than our normal excuse for traveling, I had a real work reason for going to Switzerland. As a part of my three year stint working for NATO at SHAPE, Belgium, I was invited to the Swiss Armed Forces School as a guest speaker. Located in Lucern, Switzerland, an absolutely stunning part of the country, it was an easy ‘yes’ to participate.

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Picture: Town of Lucern

Only 26 NATO students are permitted to attend the NCO Advanced Leadership course which is held twice a year. Lasting for two weeks, the entire program is completely funded by the Swiss government. Not only do they provide, room board and a world class training program, they try to ensure that every NATO nation has at least 1 slot in each course. The college accomplished this goal in the spring of 2016’s class, which was made up of 25 different nations.

The foundation for the course is building teamwork between NATO countries while simultaneously instilling a sense of pride and empowerment in the enlisted ranks. This was one of the more interesting aspects I learned while working with NATO nations – the lack of empowerment, education and trust given to the enlisted force.

The backbone of the American military is truly built on the Non-Commissioned Officer Corps (NCO). The first leadership tier in the enlisted military structure, the US heavily invests in its ranks through education, leadership training and empowerment of its lower enlisted. This is not the case for 90% of the worlds militaries. Decisions are held up at the officer tier leaving lower ranks with less responsibility. This was often frustrating for my US service members who worked in NATO two or three ranks below what would normally be expected of them in the US.

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Picture: Team building course. Participants had to navigate the maze without speaking, on a time limit and had to stay within designated areas 

In speaking with the students it was not the curriculum that they were most impressed with – or the free lodging, beer and food – but the cultural exchange they were able to have with the other students. This was of course the highlight of my experience as well. My First Sergeant and I were treated as honored guests and were invited to  break bread with enlisted leaders from Croatia, Canada, Switzerland, and Belgium. Their perspective on the course, NATO development and leadership were largely similar to my own, with one slight difference — I was the only female, the only officer and probably the only one under 30. So not only was I a women, but a young women that technically outranked the entire table.

In fact this was one of the reasons I was invited to speak on leadership along with my First Sergeant (Senior Enlisted Leader). I gave the officer side and he the enlisted side; we discussed how the two work together to create a perfect command team that takes care of the Airmen and ultimately, the mission. Although the message/speech went down fairly well, the school seemed less interested in the leadership message we brought, but what we represented to the rest of the crowd: a female commander (boss) and male First Sergeant (subordinate) that not only worked together, but worked well together.

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Picture: Preparing to go repelling. As a part of the course, participants repelled off a bridge, trusting the team member watching them to feed them appropriate rope lengths. These are the course leaders preparing to test it out (I am 3rd from the left, my First Sergeant to my left).

Up until this point in my career I hadn’t given a second thought to my gender. Despite the many non-standard, all male environments I worked in – as well as witnessing some questionable workplace behavior – my gender has never been a reason (or so I have thought) for those under me, above me or equal to me to treat me any different from anyone else.  The rank structure and uniform – true to name – strip every other societal first impression, forcing you to always look first at someones rank (so you know how to properly address them) and everything else, second.

I always viewed Europe as the most progressive continent in the world. Yet, after 5 years living there, and especially working with other foreign militaries, I was surprised to find that this is not always the case. America is surprisingly progressive when it comes to gender and racial equality, especially within the military. The diversity within the US is reflected in its ranks, encouraged and celebrated. While no organization or country is perfect, I gained a greater appreciation for what the US military represented to the rest of the world while serving at this post. Leading in every aspect, I can only hope to be a small part of that leading force showing that all else aside – solid leadership is about the person, and nothing else.

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Picture: Driving the alps

Apo Reef

Christmas 2018 was not the highlight of my life, as so many of the things I write about are.

Just as my husband was returning after a 4 month stint of living halfway across the world from me (a stint that would end up being an unexpected 1.5 years), my Dad fell terminally ill. In truth, he effectively chose his own death by throwing away his meds, refusing dialysis and remaining staunchly stubborn (as he does) on this very final decision. One week before we were scheduled to fly to Taiwan for yet another epic NYE trip, we canceled, booked tickets from Guam to Maryland and flew home just in time to reach my father on his passing at 64 on Christmas Eve.

As one of many jobs I have held in the Air Force, one of the jobs I held in Guam is “the installation mortuary officer.” As a part of this very vital role, I received a call any time there was an Air Force death on the island. My role was to ensure the surviving family received the proper entitlements, understood the services available and ensured their loved one received the appropriate honors for their time served. At the point where I received this more personal call, I had dealt with over 20 cases in 1.5 years on the island of Guam. One could say at that point I was so saturated with death and dying that I was able to handle the weight of my fathers passing as just another, more personal case. Though I was spared from the more difficult, practical issues of state executor by my Uncle.

The weight of 2019 stayed with me through the entire year. While I received news that I had gotten my dream job, I was faced with more difficult life decisions – more separation from my spouse, family planning challenges and an unanticipated second deployment. It had been a while since I lived day to day, filling my day with as much work as possible as a coping mechanism to simply survive.

Naturally, when faced with such a life crisis, I turned to filling the void with adventure in the form of travel. 

My sister and I had already planned to take an epic trip to the Philippines in January 2019. Part 1 of that trip was a liveaboard catamaran sailing out of Puerto Galera to Apo Reef, the second largest contiguous coral reef in the world — it is only beat out by the largest contiguous coral reef, the Great Barrier reef in Australia.

This was my second time to the Philippines, first outside Manila. On my second trip to this incredibly vast country, I fell even more in love with it, wondering why travel has not caught on similar to the likes of Thailand or Vietnam. Equally inexpensive, but less trodden by westerners, the Philippines is an expansive country with over 8,000 islands as a part of its vast archipelago. While Tegali and English are the official national languages, there are hundreds of different dialects spoken all over the islands with many traditional, remote villages to explore. By far, we only touched on a sliver of this vast country.

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Picture: Dive sites along Apo Reef. We hit nearly all of them throughout the 3 days eating, diving, repeating.

My sister is a marine biologist, avid diver and lover of all things ocean. I care less about specific marine life and more about the adventure to accompany trip. Naturally, a catamaran leaving out of Puerto Galera was the trip for us. We flew into Manila only days after our fathers funeral. To say a trip out to sea was necessary is understatement; healing reflection felt under the soft waves of the ocean was exactly what we needed. Little did we know soft waves were not in store for us the first night on the catamaran.

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Sailing out into the ocean on a large sailboat sounds great right? Well not when you are going against the current for 32 hours. My sister and I bunked together and had to walk through the small kitchen to get to our room. Halfway through the night on our trip out to the reef, I woke up to the boat rocking so hard it was splashing water into the cabin from the two tiny port holes. My sister was frantically trying to plug the water spilling onto our clothes proclaiming that the Philippines would eventually kill us (this was not the first story on our adventure).

Luckily there were no deaths, though half of the 8 divers on the liveaboard spent the night in the bathroom rather than their bunks. I personally felt like a true pirate being thankful that we had beds rather than stacked hammocks as I had seen so many times in the movies. The next morning, the waves calmed and we arrived safely on the sheltered banks of Apo Reef.

The next 3 days were pure heaven – especially compared to the ride out to the reef. We were up at sunrise, dove, ate a beautiful breakfast, dove, lunch, dove, dinner and an optional night dive. By the time the day was over you were in a relaxed sense of zen from being rocked in the waters softly to sleep.

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I made several attempts to get a picture of what sunrise, sunset and expansive night sky looked like from the middle of the ocean, but neither my iPhone nor GoPro give any view justice. Looking up at the clear milky way, reflecting on what we had been through, put the whole world in perspective. There is truly no feeling like it; diving was one thing, but being above board, so far away from civilization was a remoteness that is somehow strangely peaceful. The only sound was the lapping of water against the boat; the only view is the horizon; stars and the sun are your main entertainment. Somehow it all lulls the mind and soul in the same way that meditation, or quiet rainfall makes you feel at peace with the way the world works – and in this moment – I needed to be at peace with how the world worked.

Our catamaran adventures were not totally over though. By day 3 out at sea (and probably because we had the unfortunate experience of having to walk through the kitchen to get to our room), it became apparent that the entire catamaran had an uninvited guest – cockroaches. In a way, I was not overly surprised – makes sense that would be a common issue, but just added to the hilarity of the overall experience. Good thing my stomach has an iron lining; there were no protests from the group when we safely arrived back on shore on day 4.

We spent a few extra days in Puerto Galera then took a seaplane back to Manila. Out of the many options to get to Puerto Galera (or any of the islands in PI), I would highly recommend this mode of transport. Philippine Airlines gets you to many of the larger spots. Air Juan (company we took) is a smaller seaplane operation; it will get you to the tourist spots on smaller island locations for about $50pp more – and hours less – than multiple ferries and buses.

Diving is just one of the many things you should do while in the Philippines – and Apo reef is just one of many world class dive locations. Diving was also just Part 1 of our epic Philippines adventure. Part 2 took us into the northern part of the main island of Luzon.

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If traveling to Puerto Galera – here is our itinerary

How to get from Manila to Puerto Galera

We chose the taxi option straight from the airport in Manila straught to Batangas Pier (about 2 hour ride). You can pre-book for a set cost of  around ~3000php ($55) total, which we split 4 ways with our group.

From the pier catch the Mindoro Island ferry (1-1.5hr ride) to Muelle Peir (Balatero Pier closer to white beach) Note: Ferries stop running at 1630 – something to watch your timing. You will not want to spend the night around the pier area…

White Sand Beach, Puerto Galera

Where we stayed: Victorias bed and breakfast. I would highly recommend this BnB; it is inexpensive and very personable. Breakfast is served on the balcony by Victoria herself. She randomly let us try local fruit, gave us tips on where to go and was always available for any questions we had. We felt more at home here than we have many places we stayed.

When choosing where to stay there are two beach options in Puerto Galera: White Sand beach or Sabang beach. We chose White Sand beach for the quieter evening and based on reviews of the BnB (which did not disappoint).

Activities in Puerto Galera (2 days)

Depending on your beach bum status, I you do not need more than a week in Puerto Galera itself. We chose the below activities out of the many to do. See a good overview here.

Puerto Galera Island Hopping Tour

How To Access: You can make arrangements for an island hopping tour in Muelle Port, Sabang Pier or White Beach. Local fishermen usually take groups of tourists.

Fees: about 30 USD for a chartered boat for 8 persons; additional 12 USD per person for additional activities

Coral Garden, Giant Clams and San Antonio Underwater Cave

Iraya Mangyan Village

Address: Talipanan, Puerto Galera, Occidental Mindoro

How To Access: From White Beach in Puerto Galera, hire a tricycle for a round trip as no regular public transport is available.

Websitehttp://www.ayalafoundation.org/the-beautiful-nito-baskets-of-the-iraya-mangyans/

Liveaboard – Apo Atoll Reef

We chose Spirit of Diving for our liveaboard. Though inexpensive (about $1Kpp), I would give the company a 3 out 5 stars. Not the best, but we were one of the first groups to try it out so it may have improved with time.

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Happy exploring!

Doha Redux

I always make it a goal to never return to the same country twice, but when work makes you travel (and you make the most of that paid for travel) you get to live in the city of Doha for another 6 month stint. I was last here 4 years ago (see 2015 first impressions here) with time in-between spent finishing out my time in Europe, and moving to a small island in the Pacific (Guam)

I thought the last time I left, that I had left no-stone-unturned, that I had seen everything, but coming back for a second time has allowed me to see this international city in a completely new light. I have a new found appreciation for what the country has come from (literally nothing) to the vision it is building for the future.

While my recap of 48 hours in Doha still holds true as some of the best things to do in this city, the continuous construction project that is Doha means it is ever growing — starting with the 2022 World Cup.  I had the opportunity to take a personal tour of one of the stadiums purpose built but for the occasion, Al Wakrah stadium.

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Al Wakrah is just one of 9 new stadiums being built by Qatar. The whole complex is state of the art with a/c ventilation coming from each of the stadium seats, fresh grass specially designed to withstand the harsh conditions of the country and rows of seats that not only resemble the waves of the Gulf, but are removable. As a part of the bid to win the world cup, Qatar proposed to make the top half of the stadium movable. This portion of the stadium will be donated to less developed countries, furthering the international sport.

If you have read anything about the bid for Qatar to host the world cup, you are intimately familiar with the human rights accusations (violations) that country has been caught up in. In fact, I myself was surprised by all of the ‘other country national’ labor in 2015. Qataris, making only 10% of their own country, could not sustain all the construction – or any service for that matter – without all of their imported labor. There is certainly an obvious hierarchy that is extremely noticeable and unlike any I have experienced in the western world.

Questionable work force aside – I have been pleasantly surprised by the concerted effort in Qatar to make changes to their health and safety standards as a result of all the negative press.  The tour we took of the stadium was lead by ‘the’ health and safety guy who explained that their are now strict rules on not working 1000-1400 (hottest parts of the day) and continuous tracking on construction mishaps. Better, but still Middle Eastern labor rights standards.

90% of the population of Qatar come from 100 different nations. Doha is such an international mix of people that you get a completely different vantage point on the world. Texas Roadhouse sits right next to Papparoti (Malaysian bun bakery) across from Top Shop (British clothing company), juxtaposed to Zawaya (UAE perfume) all bundled up in one massive mall. In those malls, beautiful women clad in all black Hajibs shop for the latest fashion all the while leaving the air with the most wonderful scents. Nepal is a 4 hour $400 flight as is Sri Lanka, the Maldives and India. Arabic is spoken, but so is English, Tagali and French. It is everywhere, but still somehow Arabian at the same time.

Knowing what to expect out of the Gulf states (new money over historical artifacts), I feel like I am seeing Doha for the first time — rediscovering a place I have been before only to find that I have never actually seen it.

Let’s redux this adventure.

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Thailand 2008 v. 2018

I have been to Thailand twice, once in 2008 just as I was about to graduate from college, and almost exactly to the date 10 years later in 2018. You would think the country – or I  for that matter – would have changed at least somewhat drastically between those two periods, yet not much has. I feel the same as my 21 year old self seeing Southeast Asia for the first time. Yet in between, life has happened; 35+ countries and a husband later – I returned to the same spots with my life partner, and new friends re-experiencing this wondrous country.

It’s hard to write a post on Thailand that adds anything new to the body of travel writing dedicated to this beautiful country. Case in point: see here for Bangkok, here for Chang Mai and here for island hopping from Phuket – these three things are pretty much what anyone would recommend you do on your first trip to Thailand. This post will not cover these subjects; instead it is about traveling at large, with Thailand somehow sitting squarely at the intersection of then and now.

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I always tell people that I never knew (and still don’t really know) what I want to be when I grow up, but if there was one thing I do know — I want to travel. So I fed my wanderlust as early as possible. At 17 when other High School seniors were plotting their booze cruises to Cancun, I was working two jobs to go to Italy with my world history class. In college, rather than using my scholarship, grants and savings bonds for food and rent, I took three study abroad programs to Spain, Argentina, and Lao PDR. I threw myself into as much culture shock as humanly possible – and still try to, though the bar continues to get set higher and higher.

While each of these incredible experiences were a life education in their own right, Lao PDR open my eyes wide open. People often ask me what my favorite country is and I always answer with all of them. Every country has something different to offer you and much of your personal experience is shaped by the people you are traveling with (or not traveling with) – it is impossible to have a favorite. BUT I do have a favorite region of the world and that is Southeast Asia. It has everything you want when traveling – it is so incredibly different, safe, cheap, and rich in culture.

Lao PDR (or Laos) was a month of experiences you only get as a student trekking up the mountain side, meeting with local governments and knowing that your life was forever changed. Naturally when on this side of the world – it only makes sense to tack on the likes of Siem Reap (Cambodia) and Bangkok, Thailand.

What was Christina’s focus in Bangkok after just spending a month culturally immersing herself? Go out in Bangkok of course.

We stayed in a hostel (classic), went to moon bar and toured the local palaces.

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Charlies bar was a pop-up bar in the middle of an alley-way my #1 goal upon returning to Bangkok in 2018 was to find this backpacker hideout, but was unlucky. Moon bar, however, is still one of the top rooftop bars in the world. 

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What changed on the 2018 revisit? Not much! I traded 2 girls I randomly met on a study abroad trip for a burly Scotsman. We met up with another British couple, stayed on Khoa San road, ate scorpions and other amazing food.

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What has been fun is returning to the same countries or spots that I have been before only to discover that my first trip didn’t even begin to cover it. I make it a point to never go somewhere twice unless absolutely forced, but I might be reconsidering this stance in future years.

On the second round we did tack on an elephant sanctuary (another must) though the experience was more touristy than both my husband and I would have liked. Chiang Mai is a hipsters paradise, so we of course loved it. There are plenty of articles on which Elephant Sanctuary to support – though make sure to book early.

Thailand represents a crossroad between current travel with my life long love and the traveling I did in my early 20s either solo or with girlfriends. As a younger traveler I thought my wanderlust would be satiated with a few years of living abroad. Now into 10+ years of traveling and living abroad, I now know that wanderlust never goes away. It can never be satiated; it is a lifestyle, it is part of who you are.

Surprised that nothing much has changed in 10 years? Me too. Lets give it another 10.

Myanmar (Burma)

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Emerging out of the ashes of a long held military dictatorship, Myanmar (known also by its colonial name, Burma) is only just opening to the tourism world. As with any emergent travel destination, it is not completely without strife. When we traveled there over the 2017-2018 New Year, the country was still reeling from the Rohingya refugee crisis. Despite this, the country is trying its hardest to attract tourism and dig itself out of its sorted dictatorship past. If you are all about Southeast Asia (as I am) and want to get to somewhere that is largely ‘undiscovered’ – though I am sure this will change – then Myanmar is the place for you.

We spent just over a week hopping between Yangon, Inle Lake, Bagan and Mandalay. As I say with nearly every trip – it was not nearly enough. Myanmar is the type of country you want to take your time in. Other areas worth checking out are Mount Popa, Kalaw, Mount Kyaiktiyo, Ngapali and off the beaten track – Pindaya.

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Picture: Open air markets in Yangon. Note the face ‘make-up’ (sunscreen) on the local women’s face. This mixture of ground Thanaka tree (also the name of the cream) is meant to cleanse and protect. The word ‘Thanaka’ not only represents the tree but also doubles as a word for beauty.

We took an international flight directly into the capital, Yangon. The city still has remnants of its British past scattered in between what you would expect out of a developing country.  Roads were a mix of dirt and pavement with impressive colonial era mansions sitting next to tin roofed side shops.

Where we stayed: Merchant Art Boutique Hotel

Top pagodas to see: Chaukhtetkyi Pagoda, Sule Pagoda, Shwedagon Pagoda & Kandawgyi Park

Eat at: Rangoon tea house; grab a drink at the Strand hotel

To get an intro into the city we took a walking tour with our favorite grassroots organization Urban Adventures.  After getting our fill of the night market food options (and all their yumminess) we headed to a different scene at the historic Strand Hotel. Rivaling the Ruffles hotel in Singapore, the Strand was built in 1901 by the same brothers, Sarkies, who made a name for theirselves at the turn of the century.  The British ruled Burma from 1827-1948 and much of that intertwined colonial history is still felt in the cities of Yangon (Rangoon) and Mandalay.

From the city, we hopped to the enchanting and world famous, Inle Lake.

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Picture: Traditional fishing done on Inle Lake. Fisherman are all to happy to demonstrate their prowess fishing with only their legs. A technique that is as much for tourists as it is for practical use today.

Inle Lake is a miraculous community who has built their entire livelihood off of the largest fresh water lake in the country.  They farm, fish, weave and metal work all on stilts of the lake as they have done for thousands of years.

Where to stay: Shwe Inn Tha Floating resort Inle Lake

We booked a ‘short break’ through intrepid to get a closer look at the Inle. Taking our own private boat around the floating city, we were introduced to the way of life of the people. We met a local fisherman in his home, seeing the seemingly floating stilt houses and truly industrious methods of cleaning, cooking and living.

 Picture: One of the many examples of how industries have stayed alive and thrived all the while floating in the middle of the lake.

By far this water town way our favorite stop. The food, people and experiences were only to be matched by the next beautiful city, Bagan.

Many travelers exploring Southeast Asia would have undoubtedly stumbled upon Angkor Wat as a UNESCO world heritage site. A maze of wonderious ruined temples located in northern Cambodia, this beautiful site is only rivaled by its little known regional competitor in Bagan, Myanmar. With over 10,000 pagodas and stupas in an area of 8miles by 5, Bagan has the largest concentration of Buddhist temples in the world. This is where we decided to spend NYE 2018.

Where we stayed: Ostello Bello Bagan

We opted to stay in a hostel while there and celebrated New Years on their rooftop patio with fellow expats. We also just so happened to stumble on this historic and holy site on the week of the Ananda Pagoda Festival. One of the most important and best preserved temples in the maze of Bagan is the Ananda Pagoda. It was crowded more than usual with camping families, goats and celebratory locals. On the final day of the ceremony (coinciding close with NYE and the full moon), trucks of overspilling villagers could be seen honking horns, drinking and blaring loud music.

With so many different temples, you need a lifetime to try see them all. We opted to self tour, though there are guided options, through daily moped rentals and a self-made map. To help riddle it down, we followed top 10 pagoda recommendations. While climbing on top of the pagodas had recently been banned – there were a few that we were able to sneak onto. The view (and experience) never disappointed.

If you go to Bagan, a must and possibly the best way to see the temples, is through a hot air ballon. We had booked this as a present on New Years Day, but unfortunately were unable to partake due to poor weather (rain). It is costly (about $800 per person) but 100% worth it for the famous views.

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Photo Credit: Ballon’s over Bagan 

NOTE: If you are planning on traveling to Myanmar do get prepared for Pagodas – there are literally ancient pagodas to see everywhere. Its hard to pick your favorite but after a while they do end up blurring together. I personally cannot get enough of the temple scene, but my husband hit his limit at about tour #10 of ‘famous’ temples. 

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Picture: Monk shaving his head as a part of his daily ritual. Choosing life as a monk provides opportunities many villagers never get and is also not necessarily a permanent station in life. Monasteries usually have consistent meals (donated by the community) and above all – provide opportunities to grow spiritually as well as mentally through educational programs often not accessible to the less fortunate.

Our final stop on this whirlwind tour was Mandalay. More modern than Yangon, Mandalay was the last capital city before the country fell to colonial rule. As such it has a well preserved palace where you can explore the grounds. You can also get a glimpse into how the government operates in present time; the current military headquarters that houses all of the officers families is located in the center of town.

Where we stayed: The Link 83

We chose to hire a private vehicle to drive from Bagan to Mandalay with stops at Mount Popa and U Bien Bridge for sunset. We only stayed for one night in this city on our way onward to Thailand, but you can get a great overview of top 10 things to do here.

Getting around

We took a combination of private cars and flights. Flights are super cheap (under $100pp) and since we were on such a time crunch it saved us some much needed days. Private cars are also cheap and easy – though the roads are as expected. On our journey from Bagan to Mandalay took us through a number of construction spots – including getting stuck in the mud (which we inevitably got out of)

Highlights here was absolutely the time spent in Inle Lake and Bagan. Skip the cities if you can – a day or two was fine for us. We mostly flew local planes to hop from city to city; flights are just under $100 per person and were by the far the quickest way to get around on our short schedule.

Myanmar is exactly why Southeast Asia is by far my favorite place in the world for travel. It offers a totally different culture that is (mostly) peaceful, beautiful, inexpensive to explore and full of wonderful food, sights and people. Happy exploring!

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Palau

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You want pristine waters, rich WWII history and the most amazing underwater rock walls you have ever seen? Yup, Palau has it all. Not only that, but it is also working to preserve its natural resources at a refreshing (but expensive) rate.

There are many options for exploring this gorgeous island. From kayaking in the rock islands to a walking WWII  tour of the Battle of Paleliu, snorkeling in Jelly Fish lake and of course, world class diving. Unlike some of the neighboring Micronesian islands, Palau is absolutely for the outdoor adventurer, not just the diver.

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Pictured: Kayaking in the rock islands where you can easily hop off snorkel among  beautiful coral and then hop back in for some more

GETTING THERE

As with most of Micronesia, it is not easily accessible from the mainland US. Your central hubs are from Manila ($400 roundtrip, ~3 hours), Guam ($1000, 2hrs), Taipei ($400, 4hrs) and Seoul ($600, 5hrs). I flew direct from Guam while living there and did a tour package through my local dive shop (MDA). If you have time, I would recommend stopping off in Guam to get over jetlag then going through either MDA or AXE MURDERS  – the two big dive shops on the island. Though, this is certainly not the cheapest route airfare-wise.

WHERE TO STAY

Palau has 340 islands in its stretch of the Carolina island chain; most major hotels, restaurants and dive companies operate out of the capital, Koror (also the airport) .

We stayed at Palau Central Hotel. Not a bad location or price (about a 15 min drive to the dive shop), though under construction while were there. Unlike Chuuk which is limited to 3 hotels on the island, Palau has plenty of options from high class resorts to inexpensive B&Bs (see here for good overview).

Liveaboards are also a great option to pack in as many dives as possible. Most avid divers coming out of Guam did Palau twice while living there, once on land and a second time on a liveaboard.

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Most divers can tell you when they decided they really got this diving thing. For me, I had a moment on the 200+ foot Peleliu Wall looking out at the expanse of coral, marine life and sheer calm when I just thought – wow. Walls are my thing.

Whether you choose to do a liveaboard or stay on the island, 4 days is the minimum you want to spend here. On your fly days, Kayaking the Rock islands and snorkeling Jellyfish lake are both musts. We chose to go over Thanksgiving weekend and even had an epic Thanksgiving meal right on the water with our fellow dive crew. Our specific itinerary we followed is here. Though there are many dive companies on the island, we had a great time with Fish’n Fins

A NOTE ON PERMITS AND FEES

Palau is pretty pricey to get to and dive. Beware that you also will have a number of permit fees to pay for entrance to their top spots.

Required for all persons ages 6 & up. Valid for 10 days.

  • Koror State permit w/ access to Jellyfish Lake – $100
  • Koror State Permit, no JFL – $50.00. Add JFL later: $75
  • Peleliu Diving permit: $30
  • Other Peleliu water use: $15
  • Land tour permit: $10

LANDSIDE – Peleliu

Many Americans forget that we fought a war on two fronts in WWII, one in Europe and one in the Pacific (see how this plays into the history of Guam and Chuuk). Japanese forces spread out over the Pacific islands making much of these tropical paradise’s prime targets for US-Japanese battles. What should have been a 4 day take over of the small island of Peleliu took over two months in a costly battle for both sides.

One of the key books written on this battle is With the Old Breed: Peleliu and Okinawa by Eugene Sledge, a later University professor and marine with the 1st Marine Division in WWII. We took a walking tour of the island and hit the Peleliu Wall dive site in one epic day. Tours and dives are easily arranged through your dive shop (Fish’n Fins).

Funny how things go — My husband, an avid WWII buff, had read the book years prior to us even meeting. The most memorable part about getting a walking tour on the island of Peleliu? Him going “If you had told me I would one day be on the island of Peleliu 5 years ago, I would have never believed it.”

I couldn’t believe it either. Happy exploring!

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Chuuk (Truk Lagoon), FSM

If you talk to any avid wreck diver they will tell you Chuuk (Truk) is the place you want to go. Why? Because it has over 60 sunken ships from WWII. It is literally the mecca of wreck diving.

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Many Americans forget that we fought a war on two fronts in WWII, one in Europe and one in the Pacific (see how this plays into the history of Guam here). Chuuk Lagoon was one of the primary  hubs for the Japanese Imperial Navy to move resources from Japan to its bases in their ‘southern pacific mandate’ – islands that had been given to Japan post-WWI.

The US sought to crush this hub in a fierce campaign under OPERATION HAILSTONE, Feb 17-18 1944. While the Japanese had started to move its major battle ships to other harbors in the Pacific, the attack still devastated the imperial navy. Hitting over 60 sea vessels, 250 aircraft and killing over 4,500 people, this ‘underwater graveyard’ makes for an eerie playground including fully intact tanks still strapped to their cargo ships, jeeps, bombs – and – old bones with marked underwater grave sites.

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GETTING THERE

Prized diving spots are not often easy to get to and Chuuk is no exception.

The easiest way to get to Chuuk is via a straight flight from Guam via United – just under 2 hours and about $300 roundtrip.

From Hawaii, you can either fly directly to Guam or take the island hopper which is nearly the only lifeline to much of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM). Chuuk is the 5th stop on this 6 stop route which will cost you around $1K to take and is worth exploring. If able to set foot in Papa New Guinea, direct flights can also be found to Weno, the main island in the Chuuk atoll.

WHERE TO STAY AND WHAT TO DO

First things first, if you are not a diver, do not make the journey to Chuuk. Above water, the island is a stark reality of what much of Micronesia looks like – poverty stricken, little to no industry and remote. Honestly, I did not know what a ‘remote island’ felt like until I explored this region of the world (see Operation Christmas Drop for a better understanding).

There are literally only two places worth staying: Blue Lagoon Resort and Truk Stop Hotel. I would not recommend staying elsewhere; your hotel standards may be severely short of what you would normally expect. Additionally, both these locations cater to divers and have dive shops connected to them.

Liveaboards are also well worth your money here since you are not missing much on the islands themselves, although nearly all diving spots are easily accessible via shore.

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Unfortunately, due to a lack of industry on the island, much of the population struggle with drug use and alcoholism.  As such, petty crime is a problem and leaving the resort area is not advisable at night. Take my word for it on this; one morning, I decided I would not be trapped in the confines of the resorts and went for a run. You would have thought I was a martian running around — on my way out, folks simply gave me long looks, but the time I turned around to head back it looked like the town was out to watch a parade. Also note, shorts are not a thing outside the confines of diving and the resort. Think developing country conservative clothing; long skirts (for women) with shoulders and chest covered.

BUT REALLY, LETS TALK ABOUT DIVING

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As with any place worth going, the 4 days I spent there was not enough. If you fly from halfway across the world then a week liveaboard is the minimum amount of time you want to spend here. I was an easy hop over on a 4 day weekend while living in Guam; enough to see the ‘big wrecks’ but probably not enough for the tech diver that flew over 20+ hours to get there.

My trip was organized through my local dive shop (MDA) on Guam. If you have time, I would recommend going through either MDA or AXE MURDERS  – the two big dive shops on the island. Both make trips out regularly to the neighboring islands and offer reasonable packages. It is worth stopping a few days in Guam to get over jet-lag before continuing on.

Safety Note: Make no mistake the local dive masters on Chuuk know these wrecks inside and out, but make sure you are comfortable with your level of diving before attempting. This trip held one of the most lax diving, and really no-where-near PADI safety standards. We had two Vietnam vets on our boat who were newly open water certified – not that the dive shop bothered to ask for our dive certs. One of these two 65+ gentlemen (mad respect for them but) ran out of air on his second dive and ended up shooting to the top with no safety stop. Our ‘guide’ provided zero pre-dive safety,  history or orientation brief. I am also not certain on his level of English. Watch your safety standards when diving here and step-up to lead the group through these if needed (which is what we ended up doing).

TOP WRECKS (we dived these and more)

1.Fujikawa Maru – “The Fujikawa Maru is often referred to as the “Showcase Wreck”and is easily dived as it lays between 9 and 33m. The bow gun is easily spotted. Interestingly, it was produced by a British manufacturer in 1899 during the Russo-Japanese War. There are fighter plane fuselages and other parts of planes in the holds and the superstructure is easily accessible. The telegraph annunciator is covered with beautiful corals. You can go down to the engine room through eerie staircases to see how a ship this size was powered. There is no light at such depths so the sense of mightiness is extreme. The Fujikawa is also famous for the air compressor warmly named R2D2 which features in many a diver’s photograph. A lot of small artifacts provide an insight into a Japanese warship. Hold No.2 contains parts and fuselage of Zero planes which can be seen up close.” Source: Best Dives in Chuuk

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2. Heian Maru – “This is one of the Must-Dive wrecks in Chuuk Lagoon as there are many relics and the interior is easy to penetrate. Inside, you can see a torpedo long lance, an innovation of the time in its ability to project the torpedoes much farther. The Heian was also carrying replacement periscopes. As most of the wrecks in Chuuk have been spared of major robbery, the ship propellers are still intact.” Source: Best Dives in Chuuk

3. Nippo Maru – “The Nippo Maru was originally a water and ammunition delivery ship. One of the most dived wrecks thanks to its relatively shallow location, the Nippo Maru contains a tank, coastal defense guns, mines, munitions, anti-tank guns and water tanks. Inside the forecastle are many personal effects of the crew in the silt. The forward hold contains mines, detonators, artillery shells and gas masks, one of the shocking diver images of this wreck.

Hold No.1 contains large bronze range finders and a tank that was probably transported in the event of a US ground invasion of Chuuk. Three howitzers are on the deck near Hold No.4 which is filled with lots of beer bottles, radio equipment and a variety of items.” Source: Best Dives in Chuuk

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4. The San Francisco – “It is considered one of the most incredible wrecks of Chuuk and often referred to as “The Million Dollar Wreck” because of the value of its cargo. This is also one of the best wreck dives in the world. The valuable cargo was there probably to defend from an American amphibian attack that never occurred.

It is located pretty deep at 48m for the main deck, so you must be a technical diver. There is a 3” bow gun encrusted with corals. Hold No.1 contains spherical sea mines and their detonators and “horns” for detonation on contact in boxes nearby. In Hold No.2 there are several trucks, a favourite with divers, barrels of fuel and aerial bombs. The bridge area is intact and the crew quarters have all sorts of utensils and china.” Source: Best Dives in Chuuk

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5. The Shinkoko Maru – “One of the “Must-dive sites” in Chuuk Lagoon is the Shinkoku Maru, a tanker measuring 152m and found at 12m, bottoming up at 36m that requires multiple dives to explore. The deck, where many of the interesting bits are found, is only 18m deep. Look out for the operating table and medicine bottles, some bones, toilets and a Japanese style tiled bath. The telegraph and the wheelhouse can be accessed through a stairwell.” Source: Best Dives in Chuuk

If you are in love with wreck diving there is no doubt Chuuk is the place to be. Happy exploring!!

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