(Mostly) virtual explorations in 2020

I barely took any photographs with my cameras this year except on my phone. Once Covid shut down all travel, we mostly just hunkered down at home. So since March, all our exploration has been local, or virtually, via books and movies and TV shows.

I managed to read 61 books to date this year (maybe 61 by year end if I get started on any one of the three books on my phone now).

Skiing in the Dolomites in February
Enjoying an aperitif in Venice, 3 days before the government shut down the Carnivale and the city due to the spreading virus

Top Fiction

  • American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins: This book was really visceral for me, and really helped me empathise with the migrants’ travails north across the border into America. It also turned out to be a very controversial book, with many people protesting against the heralding of a book about the migrant experience that is written by a white woman. Personally, I think sometimes people are way too sensitive. If a book is well written and can help raise awareness of such pressing issues, is that not a good thing?
  • [Update: December 29] Homeland Elegies by Ayad Akhtar: Learnt a new genre – “autofiction”, where the author blurs his autobiography and fiction, such that it’s hard to find out what’s real and what’s not. I tried, googling some of the characters and trying to read up on him but in the end, gave up, and just went with the flow. After all, there’s so much to unpack in this book already. Of his struggles as an ethnic minority trying to reconcile the opposing cultures – one of his birth place, and the other of his ancestors. The process which is not helped by the increasingly strident voices on both sides of the ideological divide which brook no room for nuanced conversations.
  • Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins: Prequel to the Hunger Games series. I loved the Hunger Games, and I loved the world she painted in the prequel. Well not literally, since that world is also pretty messed up, but she managed to give more dimensions to the main villain of the later Hunger Games.
Star gazing in Joshua Tree on Feb 28, a week before the US shut down travel to Europe, and two before the Singapore government placed all travelers into Singapore on quarantine notices

Top Non-Fiction

  • Ride of a Lifetime by Robert Iger: This is my top book of 2020. I really enjoy how he talks not only about how he climbed through the ranks from the bottom at ABC to the top job at Disney, but distills it into lessons he’s learnt along the way. Because of that, and because of his clear, engaging writing that saw me race through the book in a single weekend – which never happens for a non-fiction book!
  • Invisible Women by Caroline Criado PerezThis highlights all the data gaps that result in the sometimes unconscious designs of everyday things / policies that are biased against women. It’s food for thought for the different ways we can and should go about design.
  • The Sun is a Compass by Caroline Van Hermet – This is beautiful and evocative travel writing through the Alaskan wilderness. Written by an ornithologist, we also get first hand lectures on the habitats and lifestyles of the birds and animals she and her husband come across in their treks. Her writing is so vivid, I could almost picture the soaring mountain ranges, breathing in the cold but clear pine-scented air, and imagine the heavy humidity of the Mackenzie delta with its permanent stink of rotting muck in mud and the relentless clouds of mosquitoes that drives both people and caribou insane. Loved reading this especially in lock-down.
  • Land of Lost Borders by Kate Harris – Another awesome travel book to read in lockdown, about two women’s bike ride across the Silk Road.
  • Into the Planet: My Life as a Cave Diver by Jill Heinerth –  The opening paragraphs grabbed me right from the beginning:

If I die, it will be in the most glorious place that nobody has ever seen. 

I can no longer feel the fingers in my left hand. The glacial Antarctic water has seeped through a tiny puncture in my formerly waterproof glove. If this water were one-tenth of a degree colder, the ocean would become solid. Fighting the knife-edged freeze is depleting my strength, my blood vessels throbbing in a futile attempt to deliver warmth to my extremities.

The archway of ice above our heads is furrowed like the surface of a golf ball, carved by the hand of the sea. Iridescent blue, Wedgewood, azure, cerulean, cobalt, and pastel robin’s egg meld with chalk and silvery alabaster. The ice is vibrant, bright, and at the same time ghostly, shadowly. The beauty contradicts the danger. We are the first people to cave dive inside an iceberg. And we may not live to tell the story.

One thing we’re definitely grateful for this year: the addition to our family, puppy LL. Technically, she’s my parents’ dog, but she’s brought so much joy (and some headaches, like the time the Roomba “ate” and then “spit out” her poop)
Kayaking – our main mode of exploration this year

Here’s hoping for the resumption of in person adventures in 2021!

Still in lockdown but at least I’m traveling virtually

The Singapore government loves play on words. We’re going into the second month of our “circuit breaker” – it’s not a “lockdown”, they insist, because essential services are still able to continue to work, because we are still allowed to go to our local parks for runs and walks, albeit with masks on. And now as the second month of the CB (yes, acronyms are another thing the government loves) draws to an end, the government has decided that we’ll move into phases of gradual loosened restrictions. In phase one, which could last at least 4 weeks, we are now allowed to visit our parents, and kids are allowed to go to school. But I was looking forward to – craving – playing tennis again, kayaking, and swimming. Sadly, that’s not likely to happen until July at the very earliest.

I was quite depressed by the news. In the larger scheme of things, I know, I know, I’m lucky. I’m tired of repeating the refrain even to myself: no kids and home-based learning to drive me nuts, jobs even while some colleagues have faced cuts, our health. But I allowed myself a couple of hours to mope, to validate the feelings.

Then I went online to search for good travel books. If I couldn’t go out physically, no reason why I couldn’t do it from my couch. If anything, these books validated my yearning for exploration.

I realise this is primarily a travel and outdoors photography blog. But I haven’t wielded my camera in months, and have lost the urge to revisit old photos. In any case, here’s a few of my favourites, most, somewhat coincidentally, by women. I don’t think it was so much a conscientious decision to search for women writers, as much as wanting a more thoughtful and less macho look at the world. Ordered by latest read descending:

Land of Lost Borders: A Journey on the Silk Road (Kate Harris)

Kate Harris graduated from Princeton, then became a Rhodes scholar who toyed with the idea of completing a PhD in the History of Science at Oxford. Instead, she started on a PhD at MIT. Ultimately though, she felt shackled by a life in the lab, and ran away instead to bike the length of the Silk Road. Afterwards, she chose to settle down at the edge of the Juneau Icefield, in a spare one room log cabin with her partner. I was variously drawn to her conscious rejection of the material wealth, to her eloquent treatises of traveling and history of explorers, from Darwin to Marco Polo, and to her detailedly mapped out descriptions of the Central Asian ranges.

Camping in Blackheath, Blue Mountains, Australia May 2016

Into the Planet: My Life as a Cave Diver (Jill Heinerth)

If I die, it will be in the most glorious place that nobody has ever seen.

I can no longer feel the fingers in my left hand. The glacial Antarctic water has seeped through a tiny puncture in my formerly waterproof glove. If this water were one-tenth of a degree colder, the ocean would become solid. Fighting the knife-edged freeze is depleting my strength, my blood vessels throbbing in a futile attempt to deliver warmth to my extremities.

The archway of ice above our heads is furrowed like the surface of a golf ball, carved by the hand of the sea. Iridescent blue, Wedgewood, azure, cerulean, cobalt, and pastel robin’s egg meld with chalk and silvery alabaster. The ice is vibrant, bright, and at the same time ghostly, shadowly. The beauty contradicts the danger. We are the first people to cave dive inside an iceberg. And we may not live to tell the story.

How do you not get sucked into a book with this beginning? It’s a fascinating account of how she got into the life of cave diving, and how through the years and countless of pitch black, zero visibility dives, she variously helped and led in the discovery of new watery passageways miles underneath us.

The Sun is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds (Caroline Van Hemert)

This is beautiful and evocative travel writing through the Alaskan wilderness. Written by an ornithologist, we also get first hand lectures on the habitats and lifestyles of the birds and animals Van Hermert and her husband come across in their treks. Her writing is so vivid, I could almost picture the soaring mountain ranges, breathing in the cold but clear pine-scented air, and imagine the heavy humidity of the Mackenzie delta with its permanent stink of rotting muck in mud and the relentless clouds of mosquitoes that drives both people and caribou insane.

Camping, Mt. Kosciuszko, Australia January 2017

Kabloona in the Yellow Kayak: One Woman’s Journey through the Northwest Passage (Victoria Jason)

What can I say, I love reading books about kayaking, and the Northwest Passage seems an epic journey that attracts kayakers of all stripes. Enter Victoria Jason, a plucky grandmother of two who picked up kayaking later in life. Her travel companions sound nightmarish, but if I just focus on the nature bits, this was a great read.

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage (Alfred Lansing)

Shackleton’s journey is so harrowing and epic, it’s almost incredible. August 1914 – Ernest Shackleton leads a crew of 27 aboard the Endurance, just as WWI breaks out. Their goal: to cross the Antarctic continent on foot. Alas, just short of their destination, their ship became locked in ice. So began the 2-year struggle for survival for these men, including a heroic paddle to Elephant Island where the majority of the men awaited rescue while Shackleton and 5 others rowed for South Georgia Island 650 nautical miles away.

The River (Peter Heller)

A beautiful piece of fiction about two close pals’ canoeing expedition in the great Canadian wilderness. So evocative.

And then one evening they pulled up on a wooded island and they made camp and fried a meal of lake trout on a driftwood fire and watched the sun sink into the spruce on the far shore. Late August, a clear night becoming cold. There was no aurora borealis, just the dense sparks of the stars blown from their own ancient fire. They climbed the hill. they did not need a headlamp as they were used to moving in the dark. Sometimes if they were feeling strong they paddled half the night. They loved how the darkness amplified the sounds – the gulp of dipping paddles, the knock of the wood shaft against the gunwale. The long desolate cry of a loon. The loons especially. How they hollowed out the night with longing.

I read it and recall our canoe trip up in Boundary Waters in Minnesota so long ago, and the quick but deeply satisifying weekend jaunts down the Wisconsin River.

Rowing to Latitude (Jill Fredston)

One of my all time favourite adventure writing – bonus points because it’s about kayaking. I like it for her quiet, no nonsense attitude. Unlike most other epic adventure books I’d read up to this point, she wasn’t doing it to “prove herself”, to “complete a first”. She didn’t seek out sponsors. She did it for the sake of pure enjoyment.

In the process of journeying, we seem to have become the journey, blurring the boundaries between the physical landscape outside of ourselves and the spiritual landscape within. Once, during a long crossing in Labrador, we found ourselves in fog so thick that it was impossible to see even the ends of our boats. Unable to distinguish gray water from gray air, I felt vertigo grab hold of my equilibrium, and the world began to spin. I needed a reference point – the sound of Doug’s voice or the catch of my blades as they entered the water – to know which way was right side up. Rounding thousands of miles of ragged shoreline together, driven by the joys and fears of not knowing what lies around the next bend, has helped us to find an interior compass.

Those carefree weekends kayaking in Kangaroo Valley, March 2018

The Push: A Climber’s Journey of Endurance, Risk, and Going Beyond Limits (Tommy Cadwell)

I read this after watching The Dawn Wall. It’s not the most polished piece of writing – he apparently chose to write it himself with no ghost writer… but if the author’s life to date is already so epic, you’ll get pulled into the story no matter the writing (Lone Survivor by Marcus Luttrell jumped immediately to mind!). It’s a great behind the scenes of how he got into climbing, and a good look at his climbing philosophy especially at a time when his contemporaries are perishing in big mountain climbs or taking outsized risks free soloing.

The Great Alone (Kristin Hannah)

Reading this novel reminded me of like Tara Weston’s Educated, about growing up in a dysfunctional and abusive family. Except that it’s set in the Alaska and talks to the wildness in both man and nature. The themes are at times hard to stomach, because her writing is so vivid and real. She’s a beautiful writer who has brought us other gems like The Nightingale.

Exploring the Redwoods in New Zealand, April 2016

2020 – the year of appreciating life

Despite the government’s best efforts, the number of Covid cases in Singapore continues to rise, now driven overwhelmingly by outbreaks in the foreign workers’ dormitories. As such, the government has instituted ever tighter restrictions on our movements.

I had been primarily working from home already, ever since I returned from LA on March 8. But while we’d cut down our social gatherings, and nights eating out, we had still continued to swim, to play tennis, and to kayak. Now all of these, even kayaking, has been taken away from us. Technically, we can still go to the parks for walks, but given that the government has closed down ever more places, everyone is just going to congregate in ever greater numbers there. I guess it’s time to just hunker down in our apartment for the next few weeks and hope that these measures will work.

Otherwise, I can’t really complain. Not being able to go out sucks – and in normal circumstances, we would have spent Easter in Phuket, kayaking. But, unlike a lot of people, we are able to continue working from home – and still have a busy schedule to keep up, which means job security. Also, unlike many others, Jeff and I have our own home offices, so we aren’t on top of each other while we take our conference calls. And also, we don’t have kids, so we can’t really empathize with the harried parents who have to deal with both working from home and teaching their kids at the same time.

So, instead of 2020 being the year of travel, this is the year I learn to appreciate what we have. Our health, our jobs, a comfortable roof over our heads, and a spread out but still close circle of friends we can keep in touch with in these times.

And given the additional time I have indoors, I thought it might be a good opportunity to root through old photographs on my hard drives and back them up online.

Here are some memories that I dredged up from 2006-2007:

2006

Ice climbing weekend in Munising, Michigan. That was the first time I’d gone ice climbing ever! Fun memories. Some quotes from my journal from that trip:

The lands around us – even the road – were blanketed in a thick, glorious white, a fluffy pure white that I have not seen in Chicago this winter.

Rows of Christmas trees lined the road, their sturdy pine branches seeming to bend under the heavy weight of the snow. I was excited – we all were. There was no more doubt that there wouldn’t be enough snow/ice for us this weekend. As it were, it was starting to snow out – heavily. The howling winds churned up those fat wet flakes that had just settled onto the ground, and sent them twirling in mad spirals in front of us, around us, such that visibility quickly fell to a mere 10 feet.

Our planned 7.5 hour drive was stretching out into a 11 hour marathon before us. No matter though, we were still excited; I forgot my usual attempts to spare the others from my singing and started belting out all the camping songs I could remember.

Finally, finally, we pulled into the parking lot by our trail head. Remembering the ranger’s backcountry camping directions, we each shouldered our camping gear and set off on the trail to find a nice sheltered spot to pitch tent. The wind had by now picked up, and screeched and yowled while sending snow flying directly into our eyes. With bent heads, we struggled our way across the foot of snow, slowly raising one leg and sinking it knee-deep into the snow, and then even more slowly raising the other to step forward. 

I picked up climbing regularly in 2006, and Pauline, whom I’d met by chance at a local bouldering gym the day we independently decided to pick up the sport, became my fast climbing buddy. We made an early trip out to Devils Lake Wisconsin in the spring, and it was just gorgeous.

Climbing in Devils Lake Wisconsin with Pauline, circa 2006

2007

We went up to Munising for the ice climbing festival again in 2007. We’d intended to camp again, but aborted our plans at the last minute given the frigid weather. Luckily, we had a couple other friends who drove up from Chicago too, and they let us bunk in at their cabin.

Weekend camping in Joshua Tree

What a surreal first quarter! I feel like we’ve been playing dodge ball with the fast spreading Corona virus; been incredibly lucky to date. As I write this, the US government has just announced a 30 day ban on travel to Europe; the Indian government has also put a stop on foreigners traveling to India until April 15.

In traveling for both work and fun this year…

  • Jeff narrowly missed getting quarantined in Guangzhou in January – a few days after he’d returned, the Chinese government announced travel bans
  • Two days after we left Venice, the Italian government announced a citywide quarantine
  • I managed to get into the US 10 days after leaving Italy, and before the US announced the new spate of travel bans
  • While I was in the US, Singapore enacted the mandatory quarantine on travelers who’d visited Italy in the past 14 days; luckily, by the time I touched back down into Singapore from the US, I’d been away from Italy for 19 days.

Hopefully our luck holds. At the very least, we’re staying put this next month.

Anyway, happily, I still managed to go to the US for work (if the conference had been a week later though, we most likely would have cancelled. As it were, we were given the option at the 11th hour and during the conference itself to leave if we wanted). A few coworkers and I decided to go camping at Joshua Tree the weekend before.

It was most of their first time camping – and we had to scrounge to buy and get the camping gear for everyone. But it turned out fantastic!

Twilight at our campsite. By the time we’d settled on the camping idea, all of the campsites within the Joshua Tree National Park itself was already booked, given that this was the peak period. Happily we did find this barebones but quiet campground a half hour outside the park. We had a camping platform and a wooden fence to block off wind, but otherwise wide open land.

After dinner, we decided to head back into the park for a bit of astrophotography. There was a half moon out, which beautifully lit up our foreground for long exposure shots. We didn’t stay long though – the elevation was higher in the park and the wind stronger, so we quickly got chilled.

Back at our campsite, we settled down outside with mugs of tequila to watch the half moon set at around 11pm.

After the moon had set, three of us decided to drive back into the park to try our luck at spotting the milky way. Alas, we realized only later that the milky way season in North America is shorter than in Australia. Apparently, the best times for milky way spotting is in the summer in Joshua Tree. Oh well – we had fun driving down the dark windy paths in the pitch dark.

After a few hours hunkered down in our sleeping bags, we roused again at 530am to drive back into the park for sunrise. Given the clear skies the night before, we weren’t expecting much color, but it was still lovely to breath in the fresh cool air and see the sun slowly paint the rocks and desert sand a warm orange glow.

I wish we had more time to spend in the park, to slowly hike the backcountry trails. As it was, we had to return to the city. So after breakfast and packing up, we just drove through the park, from the North Entrance through the South, before turning back to LA.

Lovely short teaser to JT National Park!

Three days in Venice and the Carnivale

When we decided to go to the Dolomites to ski, we also decided to spend a few days in Venice. After all, the last time either of us had visited was more than a decade ago! My enduring memory of my trip there almost two decades ago was the floods – half a foot of water blanketed San Marco’s, shutting down the Doge’s Palace and the Basilica. I remember waiters alternately bailing water out of the ground level restaurants and serving meals to patrons.

Happily, we enjoyed beautiful weather the 3 days we were there. Our first afternoon, we did the touristy thing and braved the crowds in San Marco’s to visit the Campinale for the breathtaking views of the city. We also spent a fun 2 hours wandering the halls of the Doge’s Palace.

The Carnivale parade along the boulevard and San Marco’s had just ended when we finally exited the Doge’s Palace, and, as the crowds dispersed, we got to join in the throngs of photographers to take pictures of the dozens dressed up in elaborate costumes and masks. It was quite surreal – but festive and entertaining! The Carnivale runs for 2 weeks, and we went smack in the middle, which meant there were masqueraders wandering all over town in their getups the entire weekend – when we tried to catch the sunrise one foggy morning along the water’s edge, they were milling around and posing for photographers too!

We briefly toyed with the idea of getting some capes and masks ourselves, especially since we were going to the opera, but we got sticker shock when we saw some of the prices of the warm capes we saw on sale!

We also spent an afternoon at the historic Teatro La Fenice, the famed Opera house that hosted the premieres of Rigoletto etc. Caught the Elisir d’amore, a 2.5 hour Donizetti comedy in a gallery box, which was fun!

Mostly, we tried to stay away from the main touristy areas, and instead explored the different neighborhoods – the Jewish ghetto one night, and the Castello district another morning, where, upon the advice of our host at the hotel, we stopped by the Scuola Grande di San Marco, an old church that is now part of the city’s hospital. It boasts a quiet little garden where many fat cats lounged in the winter sun.

Venice is a charming city to explore, for its many waterways and winding tight alleys. It’s impossible to know, when you turn a corner, if you’d wind up in an open piazza with many alfresco bars, or run smack into a waterway. At dusk though, the city becomes truly magical. The warm orange street lamps light up the blue waterways, and with the absence of motor vehicles of any kind, we felt like we could have really stepped back into another era.

We ate really well this trip. After the heavy meat dishes in the alps, we sought out – and found – lots of fresh seafood in Venice. At least we made sure to walk upwards of 25,000 steps a day to account for our feasts and scoops of gelato daily!

We also managed to spend a day in the outer islands of Venice, first visiting Burano for its colorful rows of houses, then Murano where we gawked at the beautiful glass works on sale.

A day in Verona, Italy

Coming down from the mountains, we spent a day in Verona, a quiet (relative to Venice) town just an hour and a half from the coast.

View of the Adige River

We arrived on Valentine’s Day, and we were initially dismayed at the realisation, because we hadn’t thought to make restaurant reservations in advance. But the upside, we found out, was that all attractions were going for the price of 2-for-1! Which meant discounted entries to Castelvecchio and the Arena that we visited.

The Verona Arena, where operatic performances are still held

Otherwise, we were happy to roam about the city, losing ourselves in the warren maze of medieval streets.

The campanile shines red for Valentines day

Skiing in the Dolomites

It’s been almost two decades since I was last in Italy. Oh my, time has flown… I can’t believe that I’m almost 20 years older.

Anyway, we had been very much looking forward to this trip – for the food, wine, culture, and of course the skiing.

Nothing disappointed, even though this hasn’t been the best season for skiing apparently, especially compared to last year. It didn’t snow the week leading up to our trip, nor the five days we were skiing. Still, the slopes were beautifully groomed and the runs soft and buttery for the most part. No complains!

We stayed in the Val Gardena area, and had access to a huge expanse of routes circling the Dolomites. We clocked roughly 50km a day on average, exploring all the interconnected ski resorts, via the main Sellaronda circuit. It’s been four years since we last skiied, so our legs were screaming by the end of each day, but what fun!

We made sure to stop by the huts for a proper sit down lunch everyday too. When in Europe, do it Apres style! One of our most memorable meals this trip was a lunch we took mid slope, with incredible views of the Dolomites in the backdrop. Jeff had nocchi, I had ravioli in duck consume, washed down with a delicious glass of Amarone. Life couldn’t get better than that!

And when my legs were really screaming in protest on the last day, having pushed like mad to get off the mountain before the chairlifts closed (and failing, but luckily there was still an alternate route we could take back to our car!), we explored the trails off the main ski runs. There were churches and huts for hikers in the summer, along with random benches that we luxuriated in, and enjoyed the warmth of the sun on our faces.

Stay: Villa Martha, a lovely, adult only bed and breakfast by the St Christina trail: http://www.villamartha.it

Ski: https://www.dolomitisuperski.com/en

Spot of kayaking in Sydney…

… for old times’ sake.

Got to spend a week in Sydney last week for work, so I got in the weekend before to meet up with friends. As usual, when the weather cooperates, I just had to get out on the water for a spot of kayaking.

Garry, Bridget and Natalie joined me for a short, leisurely paddle from Spit Bridge to the nude beach just past Balmoral and back. Perfect conditions to be out on the water too, for it was pushing 40 degree Celsius on land! When we returned, we splashed around in the cool waters for a bit to cool down, then met Kate and Aidan for a cheeky lunch by the Skiff Club. Good times!

Definitely grateful for the work opportunities that me back to Sydney to see these and other lovely folks!!!

2019 in the Rearview

Writing a look back on the past year hadn’t crossed my mind this time, not to mention my complete overlooking of the fact that another decade had just flashed by. I only realized this after the deluge of posts by friends online, listing their accomplishments, highlights and lowlights.

Photographically speaking (since this is technically a photo blog), 2019 was a year I spent capturing my experiences, vs. actively seeking out sceneries to photograph. There’s an important distinction here. I focused on the latter in 2016 and 2017, where I joined photography Meetup groups to visit beaches along the Sydney coast every weekend at sunrise, and later on with Sydney by Kayak every morning in Lavender Bay. My goal then was to learn to see, capture, and appreciate the same environments in the different seasons, clouds and light.

Here in Singapore, the beach-scape hasn’t inspired me to the same extent, though I admit it would be a good challenge to take up, to try capture the different essence that is Singapore. In any case, my motivation to consciously and actively seek out scenes to photograph has waned, and accordingly my DSLR and various lenses has for the most part, stayed in my cabinets.

So, 2019 was the year of documentation, of recording our numerous journeys and adventures around the world, and of little moments with friends.

We rung in 2019 while still on the slopes of Kilimanjaro, where we learnt that at those altitudes where the air is so thin, it’s safer to stow away our cameras and focus literally on just placing a foot in front at a time.

When Jeff went to Shanghai for work in January, we also made a weekend trip out of it, and spent long hours walking around the town, delighting in the clean streets and charming old school architecture.

In March we joined a friend for a weekend in Yangon. It was like stepping back in time, into a Singapore in the 1950s.

We also did our first week long kayaking and camping trip in Coron and Palawan in the Philippines. There, we got a first real taste of ocean kayaking, where wild waves and currents freaked us out just a tad. But the food, freshly delivered each evening on long tail boats, was heavenly, as was dips in the crystal clear waters at our lunch and camping spots.

We also spent a long weekend in Bali, where we dove at Manta Point and Crystal Bay, and also visited some padi fields.

Over the Labour Day long weekend, we visited Hoi An in Vietnam. We may have spent one too many days in that little tourist town, but had did enjoy visiting the Champa temples in My Son.

Mid-May, we went to Sydney for work, and made most of the weekends visiting with friends.

Over the Vesak Day long weekend in May, we went to Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Even though the weather was unforgiving, we thoroughly enjoyed wandering around the different temples. Apart from the main Bayon temple, which was crawling with tourists, most of the other temples were quiet and serene.

Natalie visited for two weekends in June, so we went to Langkawi in Malaysia for one of the weekends. We were a little disappointed that none of the beaches had kayak or SUP a rentals because of the (small) surf, but we still had a relaxing weekend splashing about in the sea and pool.

August saw us visiting Copenhagen and Greenland for the first time. The food in Copenhagen was stunningly expensive but delicious, and the kayaking in Greenland was addictive.

In September, we spent another long weekend in Sydney, this time for our friends’ Garry and Linh’s wedding.

When we got back, I found that I had an extra week and a half before I started my new job, so I booked myself on a week long trip to Nusa Penida in Bali.

October saw me travel back to the States, the first time in almost five years, to San Francisco for onboarding. I made most of my weekend there, meeting up with various old friends.

Over the Deepavali long weekend in November, we went to Yogyajarkta with a friend. We weren’t blown away by the Royal Palace or Ratu Boko, but Borobudur itself is grand and worth a visit.

In December, we did the Raja Ampat liveaboard, and so thoroughly enjoyed the diversity and richness of live in these Indonesian waters, we are seriously considering jettisoning our plans to kayak in Greece this September for another liveaboard aboard the Blue Manta to Komodo Islands.

Jeff’s family visited over the Christmas break, and after a few fun and relaxing days touring Singapore’s attractions and lounging in our pools, we spent a couple days in Bangkok.

2019 was definitely a good year travel-wise. It turned out fantastic career-wise too. So I’m stoked for the many more adventures 2020 will bring!

A week on a Raja Ampat diving liveaboard

What an incredible week we just spent living on the Blue Manta, a diving liveaboard that is currently sailing the waters of Raja Ampat, from the Dampier Strait to Misool and back.

A pod of at least two dozen spinner dolphins accompanying our sail to Dampier Strait

Life underwater there is so rich, teeming with enormous schools of fish that is heartening to see. Many dives, we were swarmed by darting anchovies and glass fishes that occasionally coalesced themselves into large balls to counter the prowling schools of jacks and snappers. Schools of large batfish cut placidly through these, and the schools of butterfly fish, juvenile triggerfish, juvenile snappers and blue and yellow fusiliers. At times, we were quite content to swim away from our close inspection of the sea walls for nudibranches, lobsters, shrimps, and pygmy seahorses to just revel in the busyness.

We were so lucky to luxuriate in the rich environs underwater

Then there were the mantas. We were lucky to spot them on several occasions, both the reef and ocean mantas. Enormous beasts that span up to 7 meters, they would come into the reef from the deep, to get cleaned by the eager butterfly fish. At Manta Ridge in Dampier Strait, we tied ourselves down to the reef with reef hooks and stayed almost the entirety of our dive to marvel at these majestic creatures regally gliding their way through and around the strong currents.

Admiring the graceful waltzes of the manta rays

In the deepening darkness when we descended for the night dives, we were usually rewarded with the sight of hunters prowling. Black tip reef sharks, swimming moray eels, stingrays, octopuses, squids, and cuttlefish. The crabs and lobsters would come out of their hiding nooks too, and the polypops would be unfurled in their splendid glory, feasting on the plankton. We also spotted the shy walking shark, endemic to Raja Ampat waters.

Some scenes from our night dives

One of my favorite highlights was ascending to the surface after our exciting night dives, to see the black sky filled with twinkling stars. Out in those waters, with no light pollution for hundreds of miles, save the warm cheery lights of our boat, the stars twinkled as brightly as they did in Australia (a sight I dearly miss in Singapore). I loved these quiet moments where we gently bobbed in the flat waters, soaking in the beauty of the night, before our trusty boat crew puttered up in their small boats to take us back to steaming mugs of hot chocolate and piping hot dinners.

Above water, in between the dives, we enjoyed little naps or chatted with the other divers. It’s always fun to swap dive tales with fellow enthusiasts, and get tips for new destinations to visit. This trip, we had many avid photographers and videographers on board, most decked out with unwieldy and heavy gear that they really put through the grind. It was inspiring to see their work, and to enjoy the gorgeous images of life underwater that they captured.

Our cruise director also found time for us to do a few land excursions – one where we spent a sweaty 20 minutes climbing the steep slopes to the viewing platform to see “Love Lake”, another where we visited Little Juliet Bay in Misool to see baby black tip reef sharks swimming in the shallows, and another to visit a quiet group of rock islands rising in the middle of the seas to form breathtaking lagoons.

Life above water in Raja Ampat

A swim through the mangroves in Dampier Strait

After a frustrating start with my camera underwater, where I had to get used to the settings all over again after not having touched it for almost two years, I gradually got more comfortable with the camera and strobe. So much so that I think I’m at the point where it makes sense to invest in another strobe light and a wide angle wet lens. (Lol, the little excuses we give ourselves for the acquisition of more gear.)

Some of the many types of nudibranches we spotted

Dani, our dive guide
A photo Dani took of me underwater – I felt a little like Moses, parting the sea of glass fish

Love the rich biodiversity underwater

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