Thursday, November 22, 2007
From Devastation to Tourist Attraction
Check out the Chuuk Micronesia photos at our photo website (more photos will be uploaded as internet access allows).
For roughly two months Troy and I are in a little known area of the world called Micronesia. Its way west of Hawaii (across the international date line), east of the Philippines, south of Japan and north of Indonesia. I know, too much information. The area consists of hundreds of small islands spread out over a few thousand kilometer’s and yes, since we are in the middle of the ocean, we are diving again. After a couple hundred dives over the last few months, you would think we would be tired of diving, but not yet. But lucky for you, this time I'm not going to bore you with shark sightings and fish tales. This time I am going to write about something far more interesting...war!
Our first stop in Micronesia is Chuuk otherwise known as Truk Lagoon. This is one of the largest enclosed lagoons in the world and is circled by 225 kilometers of reef. The main attraction for Chuuk is the WWII wrecks lying in the shallow waters of the lagoon. There are over 100 wrecks consisting of Japanese naval vessels, merchant ships and airplanes. During WWII Japan used Truk Lagoon as the headquarters for the Japanese Imperial Navy Fourth Fleet. This was Japans largest naval base outside of Tokyo. The Americans called it Japans Pearl Harbor. In February1944, the Americans proceeded with Operation Hailstone resulting in the destruction and sinking of these vessels. Around the resort are photos that recorded this specific operation of the war, showing how close the ships were to the islands when they were being bombed. As I sit on the balcony of our hotel room writing this, I am looking out through the gracefully swaying palm trees, across jade green grass towards the perfectly blue water, thinking about the vicious obliteration, destruction and madness that went on just right off the beach of our small, peaceful island.
Troy and I have dived some wrecks during our travels, but they are nothing compared to Japanese WWII war vessels. Before our first dive we thought we would only get to see the outside of the ships but we were given the opportunity to explore inside as well. We swam through rooms such as the engine room, surgical room, galley (kitchen for you non-boat people), bridge (where the ship gets driven), showers with tile stalls, cargo holds, the list goes on. Not only are the ships themselves fascinating but all the items and artifacts we found on the wrecks were enthralling. Items that we see day to day such as books, shoes, tea kettles, kitchen pots to items that we don’t see everyday such as thousands of pounds of ammunition, 18” bombs, torpedoes, gas masks, bones, skulls, periscopes, deck guns, mines, artillery shells and tanks. Some things are also a little weird to see in 100' of water such as telephones, binoculars, china, motorcycles, bicycles, trucks, bulldozers and disassembled planes.It was exciting wondering what weird and creepy stuff we would find on the next dive. On one specific wreck there were huge torpedoes, rooms with small bombs and on the deck were two bombs laying side by side. I decided I had to get Troy to take a photo of me sitting on one. It’s not everyone that can say they have sat on a Japanese WWII bomb. In fact I think I’ll add that to my growing list of “Been There, Done That!” You never know, it could be a great conversation starter. (Don't you just love the pink fins???)
As we're going through some of these rooms, it was not difficult to imagine how small the Japanese men were. Troy would be coming out of the galley and his shoulders would barely fit through the narrow doorway. He would have to squeeze them in and turn sideways to get out. He's not a football linebacker, but he is also not a small guy. There were several tanks sitting on one deck and we were told they could hold three men which seemed unbelieveable once we poked our heads into the hatch. Those Japanese were small f**kers!
The diving here was definitely a step up in technicality from what we are normally used to. An example of the typical diver that comes to Truk is very experienced, is trained to go very deep and has diving certification a few levels higher then Troy and I. Because the diving here is more technical we definitely did a few no no’s that went beyond our training. For instance, its one thing to go inside an enclosed compartment in a wreck in the water, but to do it at 120’ was not the smartest thing we have ever done. Also, not to mention reaching a depth of 170’ when we are only certified to go to 130’. But as you can see, you are reading this so we are alive and well. We always followed our guide and made sure we paid attention to our dive computers when it came to ascending safely. The boat also had an extra air tank hanging underneath in case we ran out of air (which, luckily, we never did). Troy and I never felt unsafe. Believe it or not, we are smart enough (hey, no laughing) to know what is beyond our comfort level and we are not out to prove anything by trying to keep up with other divers. Although Troy is a little “put out” that I went deeper then him (I did 170’, he did 160’) and I wouldn’t be surprised if at the first chance he tried to beat me.
But enough about the diving, Chuuk itself is an interesting but boring little place (is that possible?). The island we stayed on is called Weno and is pretty poor. Naked little boys run rampant, wrecked cars are used to shore up the banks surrounding the town and ship cargo containers are used as stores. Multiple times Troy and I had discussions wondering what the locals did for jobs and money and what kind of future the children had ahead of them. Chuuk is a protectorate (we have yet to figure out what that means) of the US so there is always the possibility for the kids to go to the mainland for school. But even though it is poor and not well taken care of, the island is beautiful and sunny year round. The inland hills are covered with dense green jungles and the surrounding water is clear, warm and blue.
Besides a few exceptions we didn’t find the locals overly friendly. A few times we ventured off of the resort grounds and into the small town. The teenage boys dress like they are left over from an 80’s LA gang. We thought they were going to suddenly pull out a piece of cardboard and start break dancing. We noticed that the women like their mumu’s and the local dentist must find gold very appealing because just about every person we met had gold teeth. Then there is the guy who sneaks onto the resort property after dark and approaches you from the shadow of a tree. He pulls a license plate from his pants saying he’ll sell it to you for $50. For one thing I’m not interested in paying $50 for a license plate, second I’m especially not interested since it came from his pants! Down the street from the hotel we came across a group of young girls who were eager to have their picture taken. As they hunkered down and smiled for the camera, the oldest girl (probably 7 years old) stood behind them and along with her quirky smile, she flipped off the camera with both hands! After Troy and I recovered from this unexpected gesture Troy showed the girls the photo and she hailed us with a cheery “Fuck you!” before scurrying off.
We did have one interesting little incident happen to us and some friends one afternoon in town. A couple from Canada that we met rented a car so five of us piled in and made the liquor store and dinner our destination. As we’re leaving the small alley from the liquor store, a guy pulling in couldn’t wait for us to get out of the way so he ended up side swiping us. (I know a fender bender story is normally not very interesting. But this one is because of how the local police treated the whole thing). Of course we pull over expecting to exchange pleasantries and insurance info and then be on our way. But the other guy decided to not stop and just kept on driving which to us is taboo. In the mean time someone called the police so about five cops showed up to see what was going on. By this time the other driver returned to “the scene of the crime” and was telling our friend that he “did the very best he could to not hit her” and that “he didn’t mean to hit her!” Well, duh!!!! The cops got everyone’s stories, then instead of writing all this down and letting us go, he tells the five of us to get in the back of the police truck to go to the station. So into the back of the truck we pile. The police station was little more then a brick building with two typewriters, two desks and air conditioner and a room labeled armory. As for the police report, there was no official 3-part form to fill out, it was a blank sheet of paper that we wrote down our name, address, etc and then our version of what happened. When our friend asked if she would get a copy of the so called police report, the police officer thought about it and said “maybe tomorrow”. When she asked what she should tell the hotel who she rented the car through, he discreetly said “I wouldn’t tell them anything if I was you!” We all figured that no one in this town reports auto accidents and that the police are there mainly to break up machete fights. The funny thing about this accident, the guy who hit us and decided to go on his merry way was a local police detective.
As we’re standing around the police parking lot waiting for this to be somewhat resolved, I noticed a fenced in area with several guys hanging out watching what we are doing. Also, inside the police building was a long hallway that was blocked off with a 4’ high plywood board keeping criminals away from the public population, kind of like how you block off access to the living room from your dog. In fact, leaning on the board was one of Chuuks “upstanding citizens”. We thought it was a jail for drunk drivers, misdemeanors, shoplifting, etc. After talking to the captain, we found out it is the islands prison and upon further inquiry the crimes some of the prisoners commit include homicide, attempted murder…you get the picture. I couldn’t help but blurt out “You mean that little piece of board in the hallway is all that is keeping them from us?” He just smiled and made no comment.
The diving in Chuuk is absolutely incomparable to anywhere we have been. If we are to come back, we'll make sure we have a little higher diving certification to be able to explore the wrecks more in depth (no pun intended). Our next stop is Palau…ho hum...just another beautiful Pacific island!!!
Thursday, November 01, 2007
I Thought Diving Was Suppose To Be Quiet and Peaceful!
Check out the Sipadan Malaysia photos at our photo website.
Before I tell you about our recent diving trip (yes, more diving tales), I have to share with you an experience during our last afternoon in Bali. We witnessed an honest to god, true cock fight. It was pretty much what I expected plus a little more. The only difference, was it wasn't held in a "cock fighting arena" but instead it was in the dirt parking lot of a Hindu temple. As we're walking down the street with our dive guide, Graham, he notices what is going on and pulls us in. Since we are very curious to how the local people live, we just couldn't pass up this opportunity to see a cock fight. The one bonus is Graham spoke the language so I could ask him all my trivial questions. One thing that I didn't know happened at these fights is that the owners of the roosters (sorry, I just can't bring myself to say cock over and over again) ties a 3 inch long sharp blade to the back of one of the roosters feet. When they fight they use their feet to kick and claw at the opponent. So here are these two huge roosters going at it, slicing at each other with these surgical blades tied around their feet. The first round took awhile, the roosters were just not interested no matter how much the owners tried to antagonize them, so it was a draw. The second one was over much quicker with the loser having his wing sliced off and his throat cut open. And in case you're wondering what they do with the loser rooster afterwards - they make soup! All this just as we're on our way to lunch.
Ok, onto Sipadan, Malaysia. Sipadan is one of those world famous dive destinations that everyone tries to get to at one point or another. Sadly enough, Troy and I were not overly impressed. (I think we're getting jaded.) But seriously, I think part of it was this time of the year the visibility was not so good which is always a drag. We both think that Indonesia was so much better no matter what excuses we try and make. But on the other hand, we talked to other people that have been in Sipadan in peak season and the place is packed, the dive staff is stressed and there are ten boats filled with divers that go out instead of the three boats that went out while we were there. Even though we are not able to time all our diving during peak dive season there are definitely trade offs to being at destinations in low season. But... we saw tons of turtles lots of white tip reef sharks and our resort was beautiful. The entire place, which can accommodate about 120 people, sits entirely over water, including the helicopter pad. There is only a small patch of sand that gets exposed in low tide and all the guests have their own individual bungalow with a private balcony. So much for being a budget backpacker!
Our first dive was not a great way to start the week. It was just off the house reef and is referred to as a "check dive" so the dive staff knows that we know what we are doing. Asking us how many dives we have and the last time we dived would have been just too much trouble on their part, so we participated in their stupid check dive. We actually saw some interesting stuff but that was only when we were dodging multitude of other divers and covering our ears from all the incessant tank banging:cling cling cling, clang clang clang, tink tink tink, klunk klunk klunk, quak quak quak. A lot of dive guides and divers, (Troy and I included) bang their tank with these short metal sticks that make great noise when you want to attract the attention of other divers. Some people have a horn that sounds like a duck, hence the quak quak quak sound. There were so many guides on the check dive that they each had their own personal beat they tapped out. Troy and I quickly realized that to get each others attention when we found something cool, our tank bangers would get lost in the cacophony of noise. We had to figure out a different way to get each others attention so made up our own noise. Think of Homer from the Simpsons when he says "Mmm... pizza, Mmm...donuts!" We decided to use this sound as the "mmm" travels very well and no one does it but us. Every time I heard it though I was hoping that Troy had found a pizza or box of donuts because since we are back in Malaysia again, the food is still shit!
For many years, there was a resort on the island of Sipadan itself but guests are no longer allowed to stay on the island. Today divers and snorkelers are only allowed to use the beach for a few hours a day. Part of the reason the resort closed is for conservation of the island and turtles that come and lay eggs there. Another reason is in 2000, 21 divers and workers were kidnapped from the island. Several were held for close to five months before being released. Today there is a small military base on the island and our resort, located 15 minutes away by boat, have guards clad in camouflage and armed with automatic rifles (although we noticed their guns didn't have ammo clips and camouflage doesn't work too well when you're not in the jungle). The security is more then welcome but it's kind of funny when you're getting ready for a dive, putting your wet suit on and these two guys walk by looking like they are about to go to war. Our room is also equipped with a heavy wooden bar to block the door and a red emergency button. Evidently if we press the button a red light outside our door flashes and the military come running. I wonder how many times guests have been drunk and pressed it just to see what would happen?
One morning there was a notice on the dive board saying "the military/army were going to be doing training procedures and to not worry or panic." This ended up being quite entertaining to watch. Between military boats zipping around our resort, a helicopter hovering over a small patch of sand to allow soldiers to repel down and scramble for cover with their ammo-less guns, to the commander or whoever he was using the reception area as his command post, it provided for some good conversation over lunch. Somehow I don't think this happens at the Hilton in Hawaii!
I know I didn't talk too much about the diving, but there is not a whole lot to share. Although there were a few dives that had thousands of schooling Jacks that looked like a slow moving silver tornado. That is until the divers came in with their cameras causing the fish to scatter for cover. Also, like I mentioned before the turtles were everywhere and very cool. You could just see the look of annoyance on their face when divers would get really close to take a picture causing the turtle to wake up and swim off. You know they're cussing, saying all kinds of obscene things because their sleep was interrupted. Sadly enough I don't think Sipadan will be on our list of places to return to especially if the food continues to be bad!
Next up is two months in Micronesia which no one can find on the map. But if you really want to see where it is, click here. Basically it's a four hour flight south east of Guam and was a very important area during WWII where a lot of battles took place so there are tons of wrecks to explore!