2008: The Conclusion

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It’s just about three years to the date I quit my job and trotted off round the region for some major travelling. I’ve come back, snagged a new job, started dating the guy who would be my husband and finally, finally finished blogging about each trip. It’s been a big project: first taking a year and a good chunk of my savings to go travelling, then documenting all of it – some of it before I started work again and most of it while juggling a new and challenging job.

Friends asked if I’d write a book and I seriously considered it for a month or so. After writing a few drafts on gmail, I realised that I had neither the vision nor the perseverance to turn it into a book. I already have another personal blog and figured why not just blog it. After all, I wasn’t out to make money with publishing a book. (Neither did it help that I didn’t want to spend even more of my savings on what I feel is a vanity project – I simply didn’t know what to say, aside from “look at me, look what I did!”) So I started this blog and plonked in the first gmail drafts as a start.

The biggest thing I learned from this project was that I could make things happen. I had the resources and capacity to step right out and do what had been pent up within me for a while. I came from the point of being burnt out and exhausted from my previous job, full of resentment at the system. I needed a time of calm, of being by myself and of doing what I wanted whenever I wanted for a few good months. I needed this break, and I made it happen.

I eased into gradually. Don’t ask me how things came together, but they did. I started off in Laos with the really chill and laidback Siamesecat for two weeks. We sat in neverending bus rides, stumbled into bus stations at ungodly hours in the morning and swung like monkeys from tree to tree. We explored various food options, flirted with other travellers and got really comfortable being on the road together. She was the calm to my uptightness, she stayed awake while I passed out and slept at the Ungodly Hour bus station at 4am. All I needed to do was navigate (running joke between us that she’d never get anywhere without me) and occasionally communicate with sign language, grunts and shy smiles with the locals.

Then I went to the Philippines. I strung several trips into one, starting out diving with a bunch from my usual dive group and going snorkelling with the whalesharks with them, followed by a visit to a community that my church had been sponsoring, some time travelling independently, then more diving with another friend. The stretches of independent travel interspersed with fully planned activities helped me ease further into independent travel.

The next jaunt was to Thailand. I was fortunate to have the lovely and ever hospitable Dee open her home to me as a (very swanky) base in Bangkok. From there, I went to Kanchanaburi and suddenly found myself, for once, truly on my own with no particular aim nor date to return by. Again, the stars aligned and I fell in with Tom. We travelled the rest of my Thailand trip together and again he was the laidback foil to my go-getterness and pretty much went with the flow of whatever caught my fancy.

Vietnam was the rude shock to my system. I was well and truly alone, not having any long-term travel companion. It was there that I toughened up, practised being super assertive and learning to protect myself. I think I matured as a traveller then, doing all sorts out risky things like stand up for myself to an exortionist bully in a dark street at midnight, fend for myself in all sorts of odd situations, and learn to deal with the crap travelling threw at me (like being knocked over – ever so gently – by a motorbike while crossing the street in Ho Chi Minh City and jumping right back up cussing at the hapless, wide-eyed rider).

And that was pretty much the learning curve for me. Following that, China was incredibly, unbelievably smooth sailing and eye-opening. It exceeded my expectations tremendously and delivered none of the negative stuff I thought might come following my Vietnam experience. Then it was Bali and Komodo for some of the best diving I’ve ever done and experiences with incredibly warm people.

All in all, I think I did pretty well: getting through it all in one piece. I watched out for myself and also learned when to let go, relax and trust people. I soaked up little tricks like keeping exact change in hand beforehand so that I could close negotiations quickly, and counting the number of bags I had whenever I left a bus or train or plane. I learned how to assess situations and get out of them, like how I avoided the prophylactic-wielding tour guide or  knowing that having several very strong drinks with a bunch of friendly Canadians on Canada Day is cool, but going to their room to smoke pot for the first time while high on said strong drinks isn’t.

After 200 days of travelling in 8 countries and 3 years of documenting it here, I’ve achieved the goal I set out in the travel section of this blog.

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September in Komodo: The Star Attraction

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Every morning I’d go out from Labuan Bajo to Komodo by boat, not returning till nearly dusk. There wasn’t a great deal in the nondescript town, mainly guest houses, small eateries and shops selling everyday necessities. Oh and there were a couple of dive shops too. Probably the nicest thing about Labuan Bajo was looking out towards Komodo and the Rinca Islands at sunset.

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But we’re talking about the dragons today and this is the lovely scenery that passed by while getting there.

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We saw the Komodo dragons en route to more diving, simply stopping at Komodo Island itself. I went in the dry season, which was great for diving, but not so great for the vegetation. Most of it had withered, leaving bare hilltops to face the blazing sun unprotected.

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Hardly were there clouds in the sky, and sea reflected sky to give beautiful blue hues.

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I found it amusing that the Indonesian term for Komodo dragon appeared to be Loh Buaya as buaya means “crocodile” or, in Singapore slang, “sleazy pick up artist.” More amusing were the various primitively painted signs prohibiting guns and logging, and I thoroughly approved of the no-anchoring rule.

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Even though it was only about 10am, the sun was incredibly hot already and we were happy to stand in the shade of the reception area while our guide briefed us on safety.

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Komodo dragons have a fearsome reputation, not quite because they catch you unawares and tear you to bits on the spot. No, it’s a far more horrible death than that! The Komodo dragon is a large lizard but hardly the large dragon-size most people imagine. It gets its dinner by catching unsuspecting prey by surprise and taking a good bite. Then it slinks off to wait while its poor victim dies a slow death, not because its bite is venomous, but because its saliva is so full of nasty bacteria that the bite wound festers and eventually kills the animal. The collection of animal, mainly buffalo, skulls near the reception area was a rather stark record of the Komodo dragon’s bite.

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And then a collective gasp arose from our group: we spotted the first one in the distance! It was slinking off slowly through the scrubby vegetation as we zoomed and clicked furiously.

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Then our guide took us down the path further into the island and there were plenty of full-grown adults simply lolling about in the shade. So much for lean, mean killing machine.

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This fella looked almost immobilised by the heat of the day…

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… we even got close enough to photograph its belly-flopped feet. This one wouldn’t get up and go hunting in a jiffy!

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As another went past, we were fascinated by its tongue. It hissed in and out, detecting the various scents in the air – this was how it knew which weak and vulnerable prey was nearby.

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And our guide took us traipsing further into the island. We walked up a hill…

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… or two, almost devoid of shade because of the dry season.

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But the paths eventually led us to more beautiful views of the sea beyond.

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It also led us to more evidence of deadly Komodo dragons. Our guide said that as long as one of the many buffalo and deer on the island fell sick or got too old, it would eventually end up as dinner for the Komodo dragons. What a sobering thought that none on the island could enjoy a golden old age, not even the dragons themselves.

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We soon came upon more Komodo dragons and were warned to keep even more of a distance…

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… because these rather nondescript burrows formed the nesting ground. Komodo dragons dig several burrows but only lay their eggs in one. The other burrows are meant to be decoys to deter would-be predators. Some of the predators are other Komodo dragons even!

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When the Komodo dragons first hatch, they are tiny little creatures no larger than common house lizards. It’s a hard life for them scurrying around in constant fear of being eaten by other dragons. I can’t imagine how they manage to scavenge for food without themselves getting eaten.

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But once they grow big, they can stick their tongues out at anyone…

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… just like in this video.

September in Komodo: The Critters

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Komodo surprised me by throwing up plenty of critters. There were plenty of nudibranchs, as usual, eggs included.

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Some of them I still can’t identify though I see them occasionally.

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Others, I think I know the names, like this spanish dancer (I think).

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And then there are the ones that I’d seen for the first time in Komodo, and had no idea what they were.

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There were some that were plain bulbous and gross. If anything can tell me what this is, I’ll be quite grateful. I think this is more of a sea snail of sorts because I think our guides said something about the shell being on the inside and the soft stuff outside.

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There were also much prettier ones with delicate tendrils.

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Then there were the crustaceans that lived in the delicate tendrils of corals, like this coral crab.

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Others, like the orang utan crab, lived on cabbage coral.

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And there were the hard to find whip coral shrimp, which was a beast to photograph. I remember this little critter took me 10 minutes and a good 20 bar of air to get a not-great photo.

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And the highlight of the critters was Oscar the smashing mantis shrimp. This fella lived in a hole and whenever we’d visit, our guide would knock at the entrance of his hole. Before long, two little fish would rise out of the hole, smartly realising that the safest place would be in the cosy hole where Oscar couldn’t extend his smashing pincers.

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Check out how Oscar would come out and peer at the outside world.

September in Komodo: Cute Little Fellas

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Despite the currents at Komodo, I managed to catch some pictures of cute little critters that are pretty shy and hard to photograph. One of them is this little blenny with its somewhat unsuccessful attempt at pretending to be a shadow in some bright orange coral. It darted about, emerging cautiously from various crevices in the coral when it thought the coast was clear.

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Its squat, square face reminded me a lot of a particular cartoon character and I christened it the Homer Simpson fish.

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Another really hard one to spot let alone photograph was the juvenile bicolour parrotfish.

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This little guy was tiny and incredibly hard to get close to.

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Luckily, I managed to spot two at separate occasions and caught a fairly decent shot of this fella’s orange half-mask.

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One thing that surprised me about Komodo was that there were mandarin fish in their true habitat. In most places like Lembeh and Malapascua, mandarin fish are generally found in areas with broken coral. If you think about it, in its most pristine conditions, no fish would live in broken coral as its most  favoured habitat. I suspect the coral could have ended up broken from all the masses of divers swooping in trying to get a good shot.

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Here, the little fellas were out in broad daylight and not in the evening as is typically the case elsewhere. While they were pretty shy, it wasn’t as difficult to get a good shot through the staghorn coral in bright daylight.

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Another amazing thing that I caught was a yellow-barred jawfish out of its hole. Typically, these fellas have their heads protruding from their holes at best. This one came right out in search of prey, and right in front of my lens at that!

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Last of the cuties was this dragonet that I’ve not seen anywhere else. I suspect it’s the Morrison’s dragonet but can’t be sure.

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While trying to photograph the adult, I noticed a juvenile in the same area and to my delight, this photo turned out fairly in focus. I found its bulbous starlight mint eyes and tiny sharp mouth enchanting.

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September in Komodo: Getting Closer to the Coral

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I really enjoyed how varied the diving was in Komodo. There were plenty of drift dives, wall dives, and sometimes just plain vanilla let’s-poke-around-the-reef dives.

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I dived with Reefseekers and the guides were the loveliest and most professional I’ve met. In addition to their impeccable briefings and safety procedures, I liked how they shared their love for the ocean at a daily storytelling session. Each day there was a different topic, perhaps on rays, or on cephalopods or, in one case, on day and night colours of fish. I never really noticed till diving in Komodo that fish have day and night colours. Not only that, but they change to night colours in the day time to signal to the cleaner fish that they want to be cleaned. Below we have a few surgeonfish changed into their darker night colours, and this in very stark contrast to a much lighter brother who was already being cleaned.

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There were plenty of other fish hanging around the reef, like this startled looking soldierfish…

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… and this predatory giant moray eel.

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There were also plenty of hawkfish, and I had fun catching pictures of the threadfin hawkfish…

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… the freckled hawkfish…

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… more freckled hawkfish…

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… and the rare longnose hawkfish.

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Others in the reef were very hard to spot. Look carefully and see if you can spot a scorpionfish.

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Others away from the coral were the garden eels, poking their heads out from the sand only when divers were further away. It was impossible to get a closeup shot.

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September in Komodo: Blue, Blue Oceans

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I flew to Flores from Bali, landing at Labuan Bajo, the staging point for Komodo. Komodo itself is a small island off Flores and is home to the famous Komodo dragon. I wasn’t here just to see the dragons, but also to experience the famed diving in the area. Diving here is challenging with the strong currents but very rewarding as it is very much an untouched area with an incredible amount of fish.

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Every dive I had was so blue and full of fish. There were trevally in great abundance and in greater abundance were the fusiliers and other smaller fish that made their prey.

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It was always a fish soup experience each dive.

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Famous here are the pelagics, otherwise known as big fish that swim in the blue, like the ominous looking giant trevally.

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They get pretty big, though not quite as big as a diver!

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It was almost shocking to me how often we saw Napolean wrasse. These are rare in other waters but seeing two or three in one dive was almost the norm here.

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They weren’t too shy and often swam round us in large circles, as if to mark out territory.

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Some of them were not yet in the terminal phase and had lighter markings on their smaller bodies. It was wonderful to see these majestic creatures cruise round us.

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Other creatures were more fearsome than majestic, like the dogtooth tuna. From afar they looked fine…

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… but up closer their rows of teeth and rather unfriendly expression made me think of how eagerly they would take revenge on me – all for my penchant for tuna sashimi.

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There were some slightly dangerous fish in the water. Here’s probably the most dangerous – the titan triggerfish. It’s been known to attack divers and to grave consequence. Thankfully it wasn’t nesting season when they tended to be very aggressive and territorial. This one just cruised past without taking any notice of us.

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Even though they have a reputation for being deadly, sharks are generally pretty harmless. There were lots of white tip sharks in the area. It is obvious how they got their name and it’s marvellous how the white tips are almost luminous in the water.

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These creatures were quite shy and it wasn’t easy to get a photo. It doesn’t help that they tend to be quite small, generally being about one to two metres long.

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Some of them came in right onto the reef but quickly shied away from the avid photographers.

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The closest we got was when there was a white tip shark hiding in a cave, oblivious to the fact that its tail was sticking out for all to admire.

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