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Raja Ampat

Sorry, no clever title or amusing anecdotes in this post. We take our snorkeling very seriously. Raja Ampat is a region of islands in Indonesia, just off the western tip of New Guinea. It is home to more species of coral and reef fish there than anywhere else in the world. As soon as you enter the water, the diversity and quantity of marine life takes your breath away. We’ve snorkeled all over the world and nowhere else compares. Pictures don’t do it justice — they can’t capture the variety of colors and the fish are rightly wary of us. But we’ll do our best.

A number of factors combine to make Raja Ampat the coral reef hotspot of the world: a stable climate with no cyclones, rich ocean currents at the boundary between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, few humans around to foul the water or overfish, effective conservation measures enacted in consultation with the locals, and the area has been geologically stable for millions of years while other seas have come and gone.

Here’s a 2 minute video compilation of the underwater sights.

The views above the water play second fiddle to the underwater beauty but would justify a visit on their own. The sculptured limestone islands are perhaps even more dramatic and picturesque than what we saw in the Rock Islands of Palau.

We are big fish in Cenderawasih Bay

When people ask us why we like to travel to remote obscure places, one of the reasons we often give is that we enjoy being not only the gawkers but the gawkees. In an area that doesn’t get many outside visitors, the arrival of tourists is an Event. The whole town will show up at the dock or airport for the excitement of seeing what strangely overdressed aliens might pop out. It can be a carnival atmosphere with children jockeying for a better view and vendors catering to the locals even more than us. Now in the era of ubiquitous cell phones, cameras click away at us like we are movie stars walking the red carpet.

Walking the red carpet at the port in Biak.

Once in Uzbekistan, a wedding party taking their official photos in a park called us over to pose with them, presumably to lend the photos an air of the exotic.

A 2015 wedding party in Samarkand, Uzbekistan with exotic guests. The location happens to be where got engaged 16 years earlier. This photo has nothing to do with our current trip; like Herman Cain we just like to say the word “Uzbekistan.”

New Guinea is divided between two countries: the eastern half is the independent country of Papua New Guinea and the western half is part of Indonesia. Cenderawasih Bay is on the north coast of the Indonesian side. When we were here four years ago, cell phones hadn’t fully penetrated the population but now everyone seems to have one. Not only in the bigish town on the island of Biak but even in the smaller villages we visited: Yende and Kwatisore. We got the full paparazzi treatment as well as endless request for “selfies” (the term now seems to be universal like “taxi”).

We’ve been to New Guinea three times and we always marvel at how friendly the people are. It is probably the friendliest place we’ve ever been. In the pre- and post-selfie worlds, we collected countless smiles, waves and handshakes. And not just because we are big fish in a small pond. We are small fry compared to Cenderawasih Bay’s most famous visitors: whale sharks, the biggest fish in the sea. They are not whales but are sharks, though it is mandatory to call them “gentle giants.” They eat nothing larger than a sardine.

Floating fishing platforms dot the waters of Cenderawasih Bay and it has become a tradition for the fishermen to feed the whale sharks, some say for good luck, others say that the feeding keeps the sharks from tearing into the fishermen’s nets for a snack. Nowhere else in the world are whale sharks so easy to see because of this unique cross-species relationship. We had the opportunity to snorkel with a young male whale shark, only about 20 feet long (a third of his potential) as he repeatedly came up to the surface to be fed like a begging pet by the fishermen.

That’s a nice fishing net you have there. It would be a shame if something happened to it. Perhaps you’d like to feed me. For good luck.

Here is a video of our friendly gentle giant.

Swimming with a million jellyfish in Palau

First a bit of history, to explain why such a weird and wonderful activity is possible. Limestone is formed on the ocean floor and becomes dry land when geological forces push it up or sea level goes down. Once exposed, rain carves the limestone into caves and hills. That is how the humps of the Chocolate Hills formed. Now imagine that the base of the Chocolate Hills was flooded by a rising sea, leaving each hill a little round island. Actually, you don’t have to imagine it because that is what happened in the Rock Islands, part of the nation of Palau, 500 miles east of the Philippines.

As the sea level goes up and down relative to the hills, sometimes a bit of ocean is enclosed by a ring of hills and becomes a salt-water lake, complete with its original marine wildlife. Most of the wildlife has a hard time adapting to the new environment but the species that can adapt have the new lake all to themselves. In Ongeim’l Tketau lake in Palau, a trapped species of jellyfish adapted by becoming home to an orange algae that produces food for the jellyfish from the sun. The jellyfish no longer needed to hunt so they lost their ability to sting. That brings us to the present where we find ourselves swimming with a million orange jellyfish.

Groovy

The steep rock walls around the lake mean that the sun only shines in patches on the lake. The jellyfish migrate during the day to follow the sun. The sun was on the opposite side of the lake from where we got in so we swam toward the sunny side for a while before seeing our first jellyfish. Then another, then a few, then more and more until finally there were so many that it was hard to move without bumping into one. The jellyfish swim in every direction and every orientation, making a kaleidoscopic effect that wouldn’t be out of place in a 1970’s movie depiction of an LSD trip. The adult jellyfish are about the size of a grapefruit and feel firm but soft like raw meat. When one unexpectedly swims into your leg, you can’t help but turn around to say “excuse me” since they feel like you are bumping into a person’s leg or arm (and there are usually several other snorkelers in the lake distracted by the jellyfish, so that happens too). Here is a video of what it is like to float among them. And if you want even more, try this one.

Jellyfish Lake is one of the coolest things we’ve seen. Even though we swam there in 2002, we were eager to do it again (and we generally hate repeating ourselves with so much new and exciting stuff to see in the world). We were glad to see that the lake was healthy, as were the beautiful conventional snorkeling sites around the islands such as “Clam City” and “Shark City.”

No zoom lens!
Those blue streaks are all fish

Here is a video showing how dense the sea life can be…with a surprise guest star at the end.

If you look at the images that Google displays when you search for “Palau” you would never know that there is any Human City in the country. Palau is one of the smallest countries in the world with only 20,000 inhabitants but the capital of Koror (where most people live) is a nicely functional town in a beautiful setting. It has several restaurants, a couple department stores (more than downtown Seattle now) and supermarkets overflowing with all the Spam you could ever want.

Spam became a staple all across the Pacific islands during World War II, along with other canned meat products that have largely passed into history back in the US.

Recipe for Bohol: add one pint of tarsiers to 1,776 Chocolate Hills

The allure of alliteration tempts many to talk about the tiny tarsier as a “pint-sized primate” but witty wordplay shouldn’t obscure the more fascinating fact that four or five of them could be packed into a pint. Weighing 3 to 5 ounces, only the mouse lemur tops the tarsier for the coveted crown of “Most Petite Primate.”

We happened to see about a pint of tarsiers at the Philippine Tarsier Sanctuary on the island of Bohol. Tarsiers live on several islands in the Philippines/Indonesia/Malaysia area but are hard to spot in the wild because they are tiny, nocturnal and endangered. Tarsiers spend the night flitting from tree to tree hunting for insects and other meaty morsels (they are the only purely carnivorous primate) and bed down at daybreak, clinging to a branch. In this sanctuary, rangers scour the forest every morning and mark the locations of the sleeping tarsiers so primate fanciers like ourselves can find them easily.

No way we would have found him on our own

Whenever you observe wildlife, it is best to keep as quiet and still as possible. We were doubly cautious when watching the tarsiers because guides told us that tarsiers will commit suicide in various gruesome ways if they are disturbed or kept in captivity. The concept was simultaneously horrific and darkly comical to us, as we imagined additional ways they could do the act (fashioning their long tails into nooses, etc). This behavior is widely reported on the internet but we couldn’t find any scientific source backing it up. One of the reported suicide methods, holding their breath until suffocated, is likely a physiological impossibility and perhaps evidence that a suicide legend was invented to preserve them in the wild. And it worked — no tarsier in our luggage.

Oh, no! Someone in our group woke him up!

The Chocolate Hills are the other main attraction on Bohol. They are 1,776 pleasingly mammiform limestone mounds rising several hundred feet above the otherwise flat tropical forest. During the dry season, the hills turn brown when the grasses that cover them die (the solid rock doesn’t support the growth of trees). We visited during a semi-dry period so the hills were more mint-chocolate chip than dark chocolate. We viewed them from a hill-top observation platform where we jockeyed for prime selfie position with other tourists and from a beautiful farm nestled among the hills.

Despite the tease of a food-related headline, this posting is not food-focused like our last two. We had a decent meal on a dinner river cruise but it was nothing to write home about (oops, just did). The forest on either side of the river was lit with colorful spotlights; an overall effect somewhere between magical and garish. The joyously un-self-conscious display, and its accompaniment on the dinner-boat by a lounge singer crooning 70’s disco classics, were perfect embodiments of a Filipino ideal of fun, immune to our party-pooping ideas of aesthetics and irony.

We were charmed by Bohol. The island is lush and unhurried, probably like Hawaii 100 years ago. We were also told that it has great beaches. If you ever want to spend a few relaxing days in the Philippines, Bohol would be a perfectly pleasant place.

Vigan is pronounced “vegan” but isn’t

Vigan is the best-preserved Spanish colonial town in the Philippines, earning it a spot on the UNESCO World Heritage list. It is in the northern part of Luzon, the largest and most populous island in the Philippines, but feels a world away from the chaos of Manila 200 miles to the south.

Vigan is a tourist town but thankfully free of the hassle and over-commercialization that often chases us out of such places. Apparently a large cruise ship had dumped bus-loads of people into the town earlier in the morning but by the time we arrived it wasn’t crowded and the remaining tourists were a diverse mix from the Philippines and around the world. We enjoyed roaming the streets and peeking into the shops.

Low-pressure salesperson

We had read in guide books that one of the things to do in Vigan was to take a ride in a “kalesa” — a horse drawn carriage. One thing the guide books didn’t prepare us for was that these horses were the about the cutest tiniest horses we had ever seen. The little guys seemed to pull the carriages without too much effort even with a whole family crammed inside but we didn’t partake.

Before coming here, we always pronounced Vigan as vee-GONE, not knowing the proper pronunciation. This led to frequent confusion whenever we heard the proper pronunciation, such as in the phrase “you have to try the famous vegan empanadas!” We know that the concept of vegetarian, much less vegan, is pretty foreign to the Philippines and even vegetable dishes usually have a little pork snuck in for flavor. So hearing “vegan empanadas” raised an eyebrow until we realize that it was “Vigan empanadas.” OK, off to find a Vigan empanada!

Vegan Vigan empanadas, one stuffed with pork sausage, the other ground chicken. The little cups have vinegar for dipping your empanada. We always think of vinegar as the calling-card of Filipino cuisine.

Although the external appearance of the Vigan empanada is similar to the Latin American kind we were familiar with, when we bit in we were instantly reminded of a Chinese egg roll. The wrapper of the Vigan empanada is made with flakey rice flour and inside there are crunchy bean sprouts or shredded green papaya along with meat and eggs. Interestingly, this is the closest part of the Philippines to China and is the port where trading took place over the centuries between the two nations. Many of the people here are genetically and culturally mixed from Spanish, Chinese and native Filipino ancestors, making the Vigan empanada a perfect symbol of that heritage.

Vigan was a pleasant place to spend an afternoon. In the end it wasn’t over-tourism that scared us away, but the tropical sun and humidity. We probably wouldn’t recommend a visit here except as a stopover on the way somewhere else (and not sure where that could possibly be). But we were happy to experience it for a few hours. And almost as happy for the 90-minute air conditioned bus ride through beautiful countryside that allowed us to make our escape.

Hong Kong with parrots, not protests

We were more than a little worried about beginning our latest trip in Hong Kong. From news reports, it sounded like the city was a battleground with fire-bombed subway stations, tear gas, and streets lined with riot police. The airport had even been shutdown by protests — would our flight be able to land? Stepping off the plane, we saw a different reality. The airport was its usual modern and efficient self. The city also seemed to be humming along as usual. During our three days in Hong Kong, our Fitbits say we walked 20 miles and the only clear sign of unrest that we saw was some anti-government graffiti.

We don’t know to what extend the calm that we saw reflected our limited view of the city, or whether it is a sign that the protests are fizzling out under the relentless suppression by the government, or whether the extent of the unrest has been overblown by the media. Probably all of those were a factor.

Tourism is down because of the preception and/or reality of the unrest which is a shame because Hong Kong is still a great destination. It is such an interestingly layered city, almost like an archeological dig showing differnet stages of its development, all still present and bustling. Look in one direction and it is hyper-modern Dubai; in another direction an alleyway could be in pre-industrial China; in another, Victorian England. Add in the modern infrastructure and ubiquitous English and it is a pleasure to visit.

Hong Kong has always been a shopping destination but one change we’ve noticed since our last visit is the explosion of extreme luxury stores. Every major European fashion designer has multiple stores, many bigger than you’d find on Rodeo Drive or Fifth Avenue. We were in one large mall where Laurel looked around slack-jawed and said “There isn’t an item in any of these stores that would sell for under $1000.” One whole wing of another mall was devoted to high fashion for children. Who even knew that Gucci made children’s clothes?

But we weren’t shopping for couture and had seen a lot of multi-cultural urban wonders on past visits, so we focused a lot of our time walking to the major parks in the city. It is fun to be walking through a dense urban jungle and come across a real tropical jungle. Well, “jungle” is perhap not quite the right word since the plants are mostly kept tidily in their place surrounded by an equal amount of pavement. The wildlife sounds are mostly from caged birds and monkeys. But the parks were still surprisingly lush and the animals housed in surprisingly humane conditions. Two of the parks had aviaries with an assortment of tropical birds in generously sized cages that allowed the birds to fly and flock. Hong Kong Park had the most impressive aviary. Instead of a cage, an entire forested valley was enclosed by a giant net. An elevated boardwalk runs through the forest, which covers almost an acre. Hundreds of beautiful birds were roosting in the trees or going about their business. We had a lot of fun spotting the different species, some of whom were not the slightest bit shy.

Among U.S. foodies there is a cult of finding the “most authentic” Chinese restaurant. We love Chinese food but some of our past experiences with truly authentic Chinese food in China has left us wary of the real thing. We just aren’t accustomed to some of the animals or parts of animals that find their way into the dishes. But we were determined to have a great “real” Chinese meal so we found a well reviewed Szechuan restaurant near an aviary we were visiting. Luckily the restaurant’s menu had English names for the dishes but they were cryptically sparse, like “Sliced frog,” “Double boiled pig lung” and “Chilled goose intestine.” About five pages into the menu we spotted the first item that we recognized as clearly palatable: kung pao chicken, one of our favorite dishes back home. Call us unadventurous, but that is what we ordered. We were relieved when there were no nasty surprise ingredients and we enjoyed the meal.

Bearly touching Ellesmere Island

Coming in at number 10 on the Top 10 Biggest Islands in the World list is Ellesmere Island. Not only is its size superlative, but it also is the most northly island in the world after Greenland and a few specks off its northern coast. As you might expect this far north, the land is mostly barren of vegetation but who needs veggies when you are a carnivore?

We visited Makinson Inlet on the southeast corner of Ellesmere and saw more polar bears there than anywhere else on our trip. They patrolled the beaches, looking for washed-up carrion or the chance to leap on one of the many beluga whales we also saw swimming tantalizingly close to shore (video).

One bear tore at the remaining fragments of a whale carcass on the beach (video), while bears lower-down the pecking order watched from a distance for their turn, including a mother and cub.

The only drawback of all that bear activity was that we couldn’t find a safe place to land on the island, lest we become the next dish on the bear buffet. In the end, we were able to hop ashore for about 30 seconds while our guide scanned the hills for bears. It felt like a special privilege to set foot at all on a place where humans weren’t in charge.

Wild Baffin Island

Imagine that the great geological monuments of the American West such as Yosemite and Zion National Parks were rising from emerald-green water and you will have some idea of what the east coast of Baffin Island looks like. Baffin Island is about 300 miles east of Greenland, in the Canadian territory of Nunavut. It looks small on a map next to its World’s Biggest Island award-winning neighbor, but is still a very respectable thousand miles long. And while we thought we had seen the pinnacle of dramatic landscapes in The Faroes and then Greenland, Baffin gives them both a run for their money in the Best Dramatic Scenery category.

We visited two uninhabited fjords on the east coast of Baffin Island, Buchan Gulf and Sam Ford Fjord (try saying that three times fast). Steep cliffs rose thousands of feet on either side. The rocks are three billion years old, some of the oldest on earth, and have been contorted over the ages with interesting shapes, textures and colors. Glaciers provided the icing on the cake, feeding giant waterfalls that looked like trickles from a distance. It was almost impossible to judge the scale of the unfamiliar landscape. On the few patches of land free of glaciers and flat enough to support plant life, there were miniature forests of colorful arctic plants. With the short growing season and scouring winter winds, plants adapt by sticking together and close to the ground. Willow trees can be hundreds of years old but only a few inches tall. Their leaves were just starting to turn color as autumn approached in late August.

The fjords of Baffin are also swimming with wildlife. The narwhal with its unicorn-like tusk is often described as “legendary” or maybe “elusive” but they were our frequent companions. Narwhals normally keep their horns underwater even when surfacing so they didn’t look much different than other kinds of marine mammals, but they were still thrilling to see, like a celebrity.

Swimming polar bears are a fixture of tear-jerking stories about global warming but bears who live near Baffin are used to ice-free summers. It is normal to see them cruising the fjords looking for a snack of washed-up whale or whatever else they can find. Their paddle-like paws are well adapted to swimming. Since they still have enough ice in the winter for their annual seal feast, the polar bears in the area are doing well. At least for now.

And here is a video of waterfalls tumbling down from a melting glacier, hopefully giving a little sense of the giant scale of the place.

Village life on Baffin Island

We visited two towns on Baffin Island: Clyde River and Pond Inlet. The Inuit people who populate the Canadian arctic didn’t traditionally live in towns, instead moving between small camps following the seasons and the natural resources. It was only in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s that the Canadian government began establishing towns, driven by a desire to assert sovereignty over the arctic and sometimes-misguided efforts to assimilate the inhabitants. Inuit were encouraged to settle down with a promise of amenities like schools but the line between “encouraged” and “coerced” wasn’t always clear.

In contrast to the colorful Greenlandic towns, the prefab houses in the Canadian arctic are mostly painted in pale tones, further muted by a layer of dust kicked up by ATVs buzzing around the unpaved roads. The generous financial subsidies that Denmark lavishes on Greenland are clearly not provided by Canada to its arctic citizens. Not only is the infrastructure more primitive but food in the grocery stores was exorbitantly priced except for a few subsidized staples. A single can of soda was $5.

In each Canadian arctic town we visited, residents volunteered to be tour guides, usually by signing up on a sheet hung on the bulletin board of the grocery store. None were pros and each offered a unique perspective on their home towns. Our guide in Clyde River was a retired teaching assistant. She was a woman of very few words, which might not be an obvious plus for a tour guide, but she had a welcoming personality and would unexpectedly open up to unselfconsciously tell us very personal stories in response to what we thought were innocuous questions. We heard matter-of-factly about her time in jail for drunkenness, her husband’s unsuccessful battle against cancer, and her father’s pet polar bear who would accompany him as a hunting partner. But even that initially sweet story had a grim ending when her father had to kill and eat his beloved companion during a harsh winter famine.

Inuit across the arctic from Russia to Greenland speak related languages that are usually intelligible to the neighboring region but become increasingly distinct with distance. The dialect used in Nunavut is called Inuktitut and written with this cool syllabic writing system that was introduced in the 1800’s. The other Inuit dialects are written with our boring old roman letters.

We weren’t sure how literally we should believe the story (especially since it ended with ghostly polar bear cubs showing up at her father’s death bed) but it was a good illustration of the close and complicated relationship that the Inuit have with their animal neighbors. They still rely on hunting for most of their food and/but have a longstanding ethos about respecting the animals. Killing an animal for sport or letting any of it go to waste would be taboo. The traditional foods of seal, narwhal and polar bear are all important parts of their modern culture and daily lives. They are still the only reliable and affordable food source in the arctic. We couldn’t imagine eating any of those charismatic animals. Yet we did. These “country foods” are so integral to what it means to be Inuit, as is the sharing of food, that we couldn’t pass up a tasting held for us at a local community center. The narwhal was prepared with a little bit of skin and blubber on each bite, as simultaneously chewy and silky as you might imagine with subtle taste like an extremely rich sushi. Both the seal and polar bear were more traditionally meaty with hints of liver. Laurel enjoyed the tastes and textures more than Brian but felt a queasy loss of innocence afterwards.

Cutting narwhal meat with an “ulu” — a traditional knife that is also symbol of Inuit culture.

The two high school girls who were our volunteer guides in Pond Inlet couldn’t have been more different from our taciturn Clyde River guide. Like small town teenagers anywhere in North America (and maybe the world) they were alternatively giggly, chatty, gossipy and bored (with small town life and occasionally with us, whipping out their video games). Their main concern was to keep us from getting hit by a speeding ATV on the road, which happened to a “rude French tourist” they were guiding earlier in the year. The attraction in Pond Inlet they were most proud of was not the work of the famous local stone carvers but the “most northerly Tim Horton’s”, an iconic Canadian snack and coffee shop. Their excitement was heightened even more when we offered to buy them their favorite frozen coffee drink, the Iced Capp. It was all they could talk about as we walked up the hill toward the restaurant, which turned out to be a counter tucked into the corner of a grocery store. Sadly, the Iced Capp machine was out of order, so they could only get a brightly colored fruitless fruit slushy. They bore their disappointment with barely a shrug, resigned to the difficulties of arctic life.

Our Pond Inlet guides seem to have recovered from their disappointment over the Iced Capp.

On our way out of Pond Inlet, we met a pod of orcas who were feasting on an invisible underwater bounty. The orcas in the region are a larger variety than we have back home because they take on bigger prey, usually other whales and dolphins. They looked to be a very healthy family with several babies. We learned to track submerged whales by looking for the crowd of seabirds overhead who are hoping for leftovers.

Urban, Suburban and Icebergin’

After Qaqortoq, we visited three more towns in Greenland. They all shared the same distinctive appearance: brightly colored houses perched on rocky hills surrounding a protected bay. We found them all charming and hadn’t seen anything quite like them elsewhere in the world. Nuuk is the capital of Greenland and the largest town, with about 18,000 residents. It had a proper downtown area with some less colorful high-rises and a pedestrian shopping street a few blocks long. The stores were large and well stocked, perhaps buoyed by being in a pre-Amazon.com economy. Nuuk was also home to a few trendy restaurants and art galleries. A surprising amount of amenities for a town that size in that location.

This sculpture depicts the legend of the Mother of the Sea who punishes Inuit hunters who break taboos by entangling all the local animals in her hair. A shaman must then travel to the bottom of the ocean to comb her hair and release the animals and find out which rules were broken.

While ogling the stores, we saw a group of 20 or so young people carrying signs, wearing pointed hats, chanting slogans. We assumed it was some kind of protest but couldn’t be sure. Then a few blocks away there was another group, dressed differently and with a different chant. Rival gangs? A day of rage? A traditional Inuit cultural festival? We eventually found out they were students from the vocational college on a team-building scavenger hunt. An explanation that was a bit disappointingly mundane but perhaps more telling about daily life here.

In every town we visited, the houses and shops were all packed together. The suburbs were for the dogs, literally. Dog sleds are still a part of everyday life in Greenland, especially in the more northerly towns like Sisimiut and Ilulissat which we visited after Nuuk. Dogs are kept on the outskirts of the towns, in acres of fenced kennels. We were warned not to approach the adult dogs who are all business. A warning would not have been necessary after we saw the dogs tear apart hunks of seal meat that their owners tossed in for lunch. There were however a few free-ranging and curious puppies who were safe to pat.

And here are our non-dog urban pictures from Sisimiut and Ilulissat.

Ilulissat was a cute town but the real draw is that it sits at the opening of a long fjord. At the other end of the fjord is the most active glacier in the northern hemisphere, calving off 20 billion tons of icebergs every year. The icebergs march down the long fjord and then out to sea. It is believed that the iceberg that struck the Titanic came from here. Some of the icebergs are so massive that they have floated as far as Africa before melting. The icebergs are visible from town as they pass but for the best view we took a boat tour among the giant ice sculptures, though they were often shown up by a pod of humpback whales who crashed the party. (Here’s a little whale video.) We also hiked down a long boardwalk to a spot where the fjord gets a bit shallower. There the largest icebergs become grounded, causing a traffic jam of ice until the larger ones melt or are pushed out by force of the ice behind them.