Monday, July 28, 2014

Are you for scuba? and turtles?

Ryan Tedford was in town as our final visiting faculty of the year. Since Ryan is scuba certified, we decided that one last scuba trip was in order. This was a chance for Violet to use the skills she earned in her scuba class this year. It was also Aunt Nicole's birthday so it was a perfect excuse to take a long weekend. With Charlie, Aunt Nicole, and Ryan, we headed up to the Perhentian Islands off peninsular Malaysia's northeast coast.

The Perhentians are in the same chain of islands as Redang, where we went for the new faculty retreat exactly a year ago. We flew into Kota Bharu and drove to the dock where our diveshop/hotel picked us up for the short ride to the islands. It was hard to find a hotel on short notice but we were able to get 3 rooms at an awesome place called Bubbles which is both a diveshop and a green turtle sanctuary. It was great to get back into the water again. Mary and I took turns diving and watching the kids while the rest of the crew dove. On the first day the group did a total of 4 dives including a night dive. Visibility was not spectacular but the wildlife was interesting and our dive master, Adam, was super experienced and a lot of fun.

The highlight of the diving was by far the morning of the second day. While Mary joined the gang for an interesting wreck dive, I got to snorkel along with the kids as they geared up and experienced SCUBA for the first time. Violet did a PADI bubblemakers session which means she dove 2 meters down with a dive instructor. She did great. Tyler and I swam alongside her for most of the dive. After Violet finished, Tyler geared up and swam along the surface to get a glimpse of what diving is all about. He saw a baby reef shark, but his favorite part of the dive was the finish. His instructor Mervin let him play with the inflator/deflator in shallow water and he bobbed up and down for about 15 minutes. He also discovered the octopus, which is a second mouthpiece that allows you to share air with a dive buddy in an emergency.

When we weren't in the water we experienced the wonders of the turtle sanctuary. 30 baby turtles hatched the morning of our arrival and our first night we watched Tom and the turtle sanctuary team release them into the wild. Before the release, Tom gave a short talk about green turtles. The kids were really into it. Tyler was especially vigilant about preventing any adults from shining white light on the beach since the baby turtles might accidentally follow the artificial light and never make it to the safety of the Sargassum seaweed.

Each night, the kids signed us up for a wakeup call if an adult female turtle landed on the beach to lay her eggs. What a great birthday present for Aunt Nicole as we were awoken at 3am on our last night (after celebrating her birthday) to a huge turtle digging her nest. After we all had a chance to see her covering over the egg chamber with sand, Tyler and I decided to head back to bed. Mary and Violet slept out on the beach and waited for the turtle to go back out to sea. Once she left, Violet helped Tom and the conservation team dig up the 97 eggs and move them to the safety of the hatchery. Violet probably moved half of them over the course of 2 hours.

One of the pleasant surprises of the trip was the snorkeling tour we took on our last morning.  In general we have done our best to avoid large organized tours this year. Snorkeling tours are probably the epitome of tour purgatory. They make you wear oversized life vests and drop you in the water with about 50 people from different boats, the majority of whom can't swim. There's lots of screaming and kicking, and anything worth seeing underwater heads for the hills. But this tour was different. We signed up because we wanted to see adult turtles feeding on the sea grass.  We were not disappointed. The first tour stop had some nice coral formations and Violet totally rocked a narrow coral swim through. Pretty amazing! Check out the picture of her coming through the tunnel.

The second stop on the tour was Turtle Point. Our guides spotted a turtle about 10 meters below the surface and we all dropped in to check it out. It was absolutely beautiful and our pictures don't do it justice.

After Turtle Point we briefly stopped at a white sandy beach to relax before heading to Shark Point. Shark Point is actually named for a rock formation that looks like the dorsal fin of a shark. There are occasionally reef sharks there but Ryan and I dove Shark Point the day before and did not see any. We were pleasantly surprised when we got in the water and there were 3 black tipped reef sharks about 3 meters below the surface. We were so proud of the kids. When Tyler spotted the first shark he popped his head out of the water, screamed "Shark!" with excitement and then dove back down to try to get a closer look. When I saw Jaws I didn't go in the backyard pool for a month (OK, so a great white shark with a vendetta is a lot bigger and scarier than a reef shark) but Tyler was actually chasing after them. I had to grab him by the ankles and pull him back towards me because it looked like the sharks were starting to circle our group. Don't worry grandma/Uncle Danny, at that point we decided to head back to the boat. We learned from our guide once we were back on the boat that one of the other boats was feeding the sharks. That probably explains why they were starting to seem more aggressive.

Overall it was probably the best snorkeling we have ever done and the kids were simply amazing! It was a great end to a wonderful weekend. Thanks to Ryan, Nicole and Charlie for being amazing dive buddies (and for watching the kids so Mary and I could do one dive together). Not a bad way to end our diving adventures in Southeast Asia!

And HAPPY BIRTHDAY, Nicole! We've loved celebrating your last two birthdays on tropical island paradises. We should continue this habit. Never stop enjoying the two pieces of cake that life brings your way.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Zombie ants and flying monkey cousins (Tioman Island)

With the new realization that our time in Asia is sunsetting, we decided to binge travel. Monique and Dave have been amazing travel friends starting way back at LegoLand in November. (Amazing friends generally, as well!) Before they headed back to Holland for the summer, we scheduled a quick trip to the beach.

Tioman Island is just a 90 minute ferry ride from mainland Malaysia off peninsular Malaysia's east coast. We drove from KL over to the east coast port city of Mersing. The 4 1/2 hour drive went by quickly -- again I'm so grateful the kids have grown into excellent travelers. If you are planning a trip to Tioman, note that the ferry is a pain. The irregular schedule (it changes with the tides) is unpublished. To find times and get tickets, you need someone local such as a ticket broker, to assist. Arriving at the ferry, before boarding, you need to wait in line to get tickets, wait to pay for tickets, queue up to register, wait again to pay the marine park fee (they take iPass for the local rate), wait again to get the marine park fee stamped, and then fight an amorphous mass sometimes referred to as a "line" to pick up boarding passes. Then shove into the gate to try to get seats. All that said, these logistics worked fine and all 9 of us made it aboard. And the ferry was only 30 minutes behind schedule, which I hear is stellar.

We stayed at a wonderful little resort, the Melina Beach Resort, in their beach-front cottages. Across the board, Melina was a fantastic place for a family holiday. There are a couple things that stand out as amazing. The beach is isolated (you boat in from the ferry dock), with natural boulder barriers on each side of the stretch of sand. We were able to give the kids freedom to run and play and just be kids. They spent hours and hours in the sea, on the boulders, in the fresh water stream that trickled out of the rain forest. The team at Melina was also fantastic. The kids fell in love with Aimee at the front desk (She also makes a mean Dark and Stormy). A biologist researching the island's monkeys works onsite and she was alway game to show the kids an animal or answer their many questions. She also took us on a night hike during which we saw the island's colugos, a mammal that climbs palm trees and when threatened glides down in the air using its skin flaps as a parachute. We were super fortunate to see one in flight! Awesome!  Clearly, the biologist does not have kids.   As we were ending the night hike she told everyone about the zombie fungus that infects ants' nervous systems and makes them climb to the top of a tree before the spores explode from their heads!  She even showed the kids pictures.  She did tell them not to worry because it doesn't infect humans. Surprisingly all the kids slept through the night.

Melina faces west. Gorgeous sunsets every night!
A major highlight of the trip was an island hopping/snorkeling trip. The seas were a bit rough, but after a not so fun boat ride, our boat driver found a white sand beach to rest our bruised tail bones. We later hopped back over to another sheltered island for amazing snorkeling. After rolling into the water amid hundreds of fish, Violet spotted a huge moray eel. Tyler later saw a reef shark! Vi, Ty, A, and J were amazing snorkelers. Violet and Ty both mastered diving under the water and clearing their snorkels! A and J had never snorkeled before, but were pros by the end. Beautiful 2-year-old V rigged out in a life vest and water wings bobbed along as we snorkeled! We tried to put a mask on her, but she'd get so excited about everything she was seeing underwater that her elated squeals resulted in sucking up mouths full of salt water.

The adults capped off every night with cocktails and boardgames on our porch. With the sound of the ocean as background, we had great times and lots of laughs with amazing friends.

Fun critters on the beach by night.
Fun critters on the beach by day. This monitor lizard (Violet is sure is it a blue-tongued stink) was trying to nab our lunch!

A very nice stop along the snorkelling tour!
As we waited for the ferry to leave Tioman, some folks fishing on
the dock taught the kids fishing skills!

Monday, July 21, 2014

The King of Fruit!

Hello, durian, the king of fruit! I'm so glad you are back in season...

Last week Zack and I had the total pleasure of visiting a durian farm. Ana, who owns LaZat -- the fabulous cooking school that I've raved about on this blog -- heard that Zack is a big durian fan. So before his departure for graduate school, Ana arranged for us to see these spiky delights in all their natural glory. Ana's friend, a dentist and hiking friend of Ana's, with his wonderful brother met up with me, Zack, and Ana just outside KL. The family owns a hilly spot of land where they planted 50 durian trees there about 35 years ago. During the one month durian season, the family members hike up to the property everyday to collect the durian. Malaysians harvest durian when it naturally falls from the tree, meaning it's nice and ripe. Don't accept durian any other way. This also means that Malaysian durian is difficult to transport and import, because in its finest form, it peaks just a day or two after falling from the tree. And I mean falling. When we were hanging at the during farm, we heard a "thunk" and then we saw a durian rolling downhill (think medieval castle protection!). At the base of the hill we collected the durian -- it was ready for eating. 

The brothers also taught us the technique for opening a durian. To avoid the spiked shells from cutting our delicate fingers, we wore a utility glove on one hand. In the other, we held a heavy iron cleaver. FYI: The durian sellers at the market make this look way too easy. Zack, Ana, and I mastered (sort of) the technique with the help of our new friends. The farm also had sweet, delicious mangosteens, Violet's favorite tropical fruit. I put a picture of an open mangosteen below. The morning was really wonderful. And I can't thank our hosts enough. A deep, heartfelt thank you for bringing us to your farm and sharing your D24s. It is currently Ramadan, meaning that Malaysia's Muslim population is fasting from sunrise to sunset. Our generous hosts encouraged me and Zack to enjoy our durian breakfast even while they fasted. A truly cherished memory!

Dear Zack: We miss you already. Over the last 6 months you have become a member of the family. We are all excited for your graduate school adventures in Vancouver and we're already looking forward to planning a visit out to see you in Canada -- we'll go camping. Keep staying game for anything that comes your way. XOXOXO

See the holes in the roof. They are from durians falling from the tree above!

In other news, we recently learned that our two+ year Asian adventure will be cut short. Hopkins and the local Malaysian university here severed ties and we are heading back to Baltimore in August. It's been a difficult month of ups and downs, but ultimately we know that the decision to return to the States is best given the circumstances. It has also led to many unexpected goodbyes.

The children have thrived at Garden International School this year. They have learned many academic lessons (reading, writing, maths - that's British for math), but the lesson I value for them the most is resilience. This will follow with them in life. Violet now knows that an early struggle, socially or academically, is okay. She can rise up. Tyler's continued to gain confidence and has proven that his social nature transcends cultures and language. And both kids now LOVE football (soccer!). GIS has a wonderful tradition for "leavers" to have their uniform shirts signed by their classmates. Tyler's Year 1 (kindergarten) class was especially cute with this, as many of Tyler's friends had recently learned (or learnt, as they say in British) to write their names well. A huge and wonderful shout out to Violet and Tyler's GIS teachers. You two have made this an amazing year. Ms. Nicky and Ms. Vanila -- hugs and kisses -- and many, many thank yous.

There are goodbyes and there are "see you laters"... Camp WienerPohl officially closed as the Miller-Wiener family left Malaysia for China travels before heading to their next exotic locale -- New Jersey. Again, we've grown beyond friends. Robin, Ethan, A, and J -- we'll see you soon cruising up or down the NJ Turnpike. Love you all!

Airport selfie.