Archive July 2019

Bring on Bangkok

To top off our 17-day trip, we landed in Bangkok for a few days before coming back to Beijing. We stayed at Legacy Suites Hotel in the financial district of Bangkok at the recommendation of some friends who had stayed one night there. It was a beautiful, spacious hotel, but we discovered it was in the middle of a “red light district.” We did go away from the area for some fun experiences. We went to a cultural show one evening that was astounding in the way it was performed. Unfortunately, no photographs were allowed. We also toured the river and canals via long-boat.

Exploring Singapore

Prior to our cruising adventure, we spent a few days in Singapore. What a delightful place! We lucked out in our choice of hotels when we stayed at the Nostalgia Hotel, which was located on the edge of a residential area. Consequently, we had quick access to a community eatery that served delicious local cuisine. And the best part–it was only a few dollars per meal. Needless to say, we wandered over to the eatery several times per day.

Singapore has a very diverse population, very livable weather year-round, and very few natural disasters. I particularly enjoyed the fact that the local citizens we came across (at least in the area of our hotel) spoke a mixture of English, Cantonese, and Mandarin . . which happens to coincide exactly with my own current linguistic state. It felt like heaven.

Aboard the Star Clipper

The following are excerpts from an email we sent to fellow China teachers, Brigg and Janet Steele. They are considering a sailing cruise and wanted to know what we thought. Check out the pics below too.

Snorkeling at Pink Sand Beach in Indonesia. The Star Clipper is in the background.

Hi Brigg and Janet,

As promised, I’m going to give a little de-brief of our cruise. I’m doing this also for my own benefit to gather my thoughts about the experience.

The first day, our cruise officer told us to take everything we know about cruising and throw it out the window. He said, “think of this as a sailing adventure, not a cruise.” And he was correct. There were no casinos, professional entertainers, on-board high-end shops, etc. We’ve been on cruises that felt like we were simply riding in a floating shopping mall. This was quite different.

The Ship: Our ship was the Star Clipper, built in 1992. It was approx.. 366 feet long, weighing almost 2,300 tons. It is a four-masted, six-sailed ship. The passenger list was only 152 people, with 78 crew members. On board was a good-sized dining hall, small shop for incidentals, library, tropical bar, piano bar, three small “cooling off” pools, and plenty of deck space. The cabins were similar to what we’ve experienced on other cruise ships—smallish yet comfortable and well-maintained. Our cabin’s port-hole was at water level, which was a bit freaky at first, but we discovered we loved being so close to the water. In fact, the whole experience was one in which you feel closer to the ocean than you would on a large cruise ship. We fell in love with that. Yes, with a smaller vessel you feel the constant rocking  of the waves, but we didn’t have any trouble. We did notice other passengers with motion sickness patches behind their ears. To us, the constant motion felt more like a soothing, “rock you to sleep” experience. We had some great food in the dining hall, and it was nutritious and healthy besides. We didn’t feel “yucky” at all after 7 days. It was wonderful. One very telling thing: of the 152 passengers, 54 were repeat customers!

The Crew: The relationship with captain and crew was significantly different as a passenger on the Star Clipper vs. large cruise ships. We were encouraged to come to the bridge any time and see how to navigate, help crew members hoist sails, and ask questions of the officers. One officer did a daily briefing with very interesting stories about sailing and information about the area we were sailing. We felt we were participating in an ancient form of transportation, and gained an appreciation for their skill.

The Voyage: Our 7 nights included just one full day at sea. The other days involved time on various small islands, most often un-inhabited islands. We started at Benoa Port in Bali, sailed east around the big islands of Lombok, Sumbawa in the archipelago and included Komodo Island as our most easterly island. Most of the excursions on this easterly route were simply hiking, sightseeing, snorkeling, diving, kayaking, small sail-boating, etc. as the ship would pull up near a small island and we would be tendered out to the beach, requiring a “wet landing” from off the tender. We saw some of the most beautiful sites and had a wonderful time on our excursions. We were able to see Komodo Dragons while being protected by armed rangers (they are deadly). We parked in the waters a mile from a belching volcano and witnessed the most active volcanic zone in the world. When the cruise goes West, the excursions are more the type you see from other cruise ships, where you pay local companies for tours. But on the route we took, it was less about the paid excursions and more about simply enjoying yourself on the islands on your own. The ship provided all the equipment for some fun activities.

The Experience: Our eyes were certainly opened to this kind of cruising, and we feel like most the other passengers onboard—we want to do it again. In fact, we’re going to keep our eyes open for this same ship or same cruise line sailing around the islands of Thailand. A ship this size meant much less dealing with large numbers of fellow passengers and other cruise ship passengers. We saw sights that would have been impossible to see from a large cruise ship. The ship was small enough to provide these opportunities while large enough to make the experience fun while onboard as well. This kind of cruising is more about experiencing the sea and less about having all of life’s distractions at your finger-tips. We highly recommend it!

What questions do you have? We will see you soon!

Here’s there official website: https://www.starclippers.com/us-dom

Monkey Business

The hotel description said, “3 minute walk to the Monkey Forest.” We thought it would be a great chance to see wildlife in Bali while we stayed a few days prior to our cruise. Little did we know just how up-close and personal our experiences with monkeys would be.

We might have gotten a clue when our hostess, showing us the villa accommodations, pointed out the sling-shot provided to each room. These were for our convenience to chase any monkeys away from our villa. It soon became obvious that monkeys do not read signs to know where the monkey habitat begins and ends.

Someone forgot to tell the monkeys to stay in the monkey habitat located literally a stone’s throw from the Bali Bohemia villas where we were staying.
Our first breakfast after arriving. That’s Brandi on the left, Rob in the middle and Laraine on the right. This was taken just minutes before we were served breakfast and Brandi looked up to see a giant monkey stealing her pancake. It happened so fast, most of us would not have known what happened except that Laraine let out a big scream.
Restaurant workers put offerings out to the “gods,” but are actually picked through and eaten by the monkeys.

At one point, we were visiting a Hindu temple and saw a monkey walking around with a very expensive pair of sunglasses. This put us all on edge as we quickly removed our glasses and put them away. However, Rob later decided he wanted to see something and put on his glasses. Very quickly, a monkey jumped up on his shoulder and grabbed the glasses off of his face. He managed to grab them, however, leaving the monkey with just the rubber covering that protected Rob’s ear from the wire piece. The monkey sat there chewing on this rubber piece. Rob was glad he still had his glasses for the remainder of the trip.

One day we walked about 15 minutes around the fenced perimeter of the monkey forest to a grocery store. Seeing a rotisserie chicken for sale at the store, we decided to buy it and bring it back to our room. What were we thinking? A local, sitting on the sidewalk, looked at us and said, “That will not work.” He was absolutely correct. There was no way we were going to get that chicken past the monkeys to our room, so we bundled it up in a canvas backpack and hoped the monkeys couldn’t smell it. As we entered the monkey area, two monkeys were on a tree limb directly above us, watching us carefully. Somehow we got it past them and all the way to our room.

Balinese Family and Faith

Prior to our 7-day sailing cruise, we decided to spend three days in Bali itself. We are so glad we did. Not only did we see some amazing sights, we also learned something about the strength of family and faith. It was a lesson we’ll never forget.

Laraine sitting with the parents of our Bali driver in their “grandparents” pavilion.

While Indonesia as a whole is largely Muslim, the people of Bali are largely Hindu (83%). We arrived at Bali’s Denpasar airport late at night and saw no hint of the magic that awaited us. Our driver drove through non-descript streets for over an hour before arriving at a narrow, unlit alleyway in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere. We exchanged some worried glances at each other, wondering what we had gotten ourselves into. After all, we had not relied on any recommendations to choose our hotel . . only those on Hotels.com.

We needn’t have worried. No, we were not at a major hotel, but we did manage to snag the coziest slice of paradise on Bali. The 11-room Bali Bohemian turned out to be a destination unto itself. The friendly night hostess greeted us with smiles, a cool mint drink, and no urgency to run our credit card or even discuss money. “Let’s just worry about that tomorrow when you’re rested,” she said. Who DOES that? We were very impressed.

The view from our veranda

She walked us around a beautifully lit pool into our villa, an eclectic and authentic Bali experience. As she showed us around, one of the most notable items in our room was a sling-shot. She explained that it was because of the monkeys. If we should ever need the sling-shot, we could simply point it at a monkey and pretend it was loaded. The monkey would scamper off. I smiled, thinking this was a quaint “gimmick” to impress visiting tourists.

The next day, we learned how practical those sling-shots were. The online listing for the villa mentioned a nearby “Monkey Forest” that was within walking distance. In reality, the monkey forest was literally adjacent to our villa and we also learned that monkeys do not care about signs or fences. They were an amusing and sometimes exciting punctuation to our trip.

Our time in Bali was dreamy, to say the least. We thoroughly enjoyed visiting various temples, waterfalls, woodcrafting shops, painting shops, jewelry shops, coffee plantations, and much more. Everywhere we went in residential areas, we noticed very ornate architecture and decorative elements. One day, our driver/guide was driving in an area and said, “I live right over there.” We were impressed with this driver and his gentle spirit. He then asked if we would like to come see his home. We jumped at the chance.

Laraine managed to buy a dress for our driver’s new baby, once he told us that he had a new daughter. We are preparing to enter this Balinese home and look around.
Restaurant staff take a moment to worship in the evening

Every home in Bali consists of a walled compound in which ornate pavilions are carefully placed. The way these structures are laid out is determined by culture and religious conviction. Each home has a pavilion for the grandparents, a sleeping pavilion, a kitchen pavilion and some kind of ceremonial hall. In addition, each home has its own temple. These properties are not simple; they’re extravagant and well-maintained.

Our driver and guide, “Katoot,” with Brandi, Chuck, Laraine and Rob. The family runs a small coconut shop facing the street just outside their home. Coconut water is great on a hot day.

Multiple generations occupy the same property and the strength that comes from participating in daily religious rituals and having strong family support is obvious in Balinese society. Balinese people who are blessed to enjoy these strengths are largely protected from the difficulties we’ve seen in other Asian and western countries. We felt humbled and blessed to have witnessed this strength in action. The abundance felt by all family members seemed much higher than one would expect in a country with meager incomes.

The experience reminded us how faith and family can work together to bring greater abundance and prosperity.     

Inside a Balinese family compound. Absolutely beautiful. Above is the entrance to their family temple and inside the family shrine (temple) area. Rob Kraese is impressed too.

Land Ho!!

Our 7-day sailing adventure in Indonesia included a Monday at sea. What do you do when you’re stuck on a sailing ship for a full day? You climb the mast, of course!

The climb up begins on the edge of the ship. Crew members strap on a harness. This is Brandi’s Rob Kraese getting ready to climb.
Chuck following Brandi up the ropes to the crow’s nest.
Laraine reaches the crow’s nest!
Chuck and Rob share a moment up high. This was a victory for Chuck, who has trouble with heights. Rob, on the other hand, is a New York lineman and has climbed many a tower.

Tiptoe Through the Dragons

Our 7-day Indonesian sailing adventure and additional 10 days visiting southeast Asian countries produced some life lessons about human nature and the difficulties we all face in simply trying to remain safe amid serious threats.

Our clipper ship sailed to within a mile of Komodo Island in Indonesia before anchoring. Briefings by the ship’s officer the night before warned us of the dangers of Komodo Dragons.

Komodo Dragon looking for water

“You can’t out-run them; they can chase down a deer. And guess what? You can’t out-climb them because they are excellent climbers. If you think you can head to water and outswim them, think again. They are excellent swimmers.”

After a nightmare-ish discussion about how they kill using anti-coagulating venom and super-deadly flesh-eating bacteria, we were, to say the least, a bit anxious about our excursion onto Komodo Island, home to approximately 3,000 deadly dinosaur-era leftovers. These 10-foot long creatures are called “perfect killing machines” by some. According to our cruise director, if you are bitten and can get medical help within two hours you have “a chance” at survival.

“The problem,” he explained in his thick German accent, is that “getting medical attention ees difficult because ze island ees wery remote.”

Our plan was to get onto the island early in the day because the dragons are more active in the cool of the morning. We also learned it was mating season and dragons would be busy and unlikely to be as visible to us along the pathways through the forest. We would be traveling in groups of 10-12, guarded by “armed” park rangers and we were warned to stay close to them (I didn’t think that would be a problem for any of us. I was wrong).

Landing on Komodo Island was a “dry landing” as compared to the “wet landings” we had experienced. There was a well-built dock, welcoming visitors to Komodo National Park. We were anxious and nervous to begin our trek through the flora and fauna of the park, home to numerous birds, snakes, wild boar, fruit bats, deer, and of course—dragons!

Our “armed guards” consisted of three young men holding long forked sticks. They again briefed us in broken English about what to expect and how to stay safe by staying behind the guide. The quote of the day came after one woman in our group asked, “Could dragons sneak up from behind our group and attack?”

The guide’s answer: “Yes, of course. That’s why it’s important to stay behind your guide.”

The implications of that uncorrected answer echoed in our skulls as we moved forward along the narrow dirt path. But thankfully, one of the guards (or guides) positioned himself behind our group, one in the middle and one in front. As long as we stayed with the group and with these local experts who knew the disposition of the dragons and how to deal with them, we would be safe.

Our 90-minute walk began quietly, as we were urged to keep our voices low. Occasionally, the lead guide would stop and point out a tree or animal. We soon saw a wild boar, dangerous in its own right, rummaging in the trees to our right. It seemed uninterested in us. There were occasional deer sightings, but no dragons. Eventually, however, our lead guide whispered quietly, “dragon!” and we all scampered ahead to join him, both to see what he was looking at and to take advantage of his superior dragon-fighting skills.  

Coming straight towards us was a 6-foot female in search of water, and we were standing next to a watering hole. The creature seemed deceptively slow and plodding, it’s long forked tongue periodically “sniffing” the air for our scent. It seemed oblivious to the gawking tourists respectfully clearing the path ahead of it. Its manner of movement seemed odd: right front paw and left rear paw moving first in unison, then left front paw and right front paw moving together to catch up. This gave it a strange waddling gait that seemed alien. Clearly, it was not searching for prey, but only for water, so we did not see it shift into running, hunting mode, which would have been a frightening prospect.

Having sighted our first dragon, we were all more at ease. After all, these animals didn’t always have food on their minds. In fact, they seemed pretty harmless. In fact, after our group stopped a short distance away to look at a poisonous snake, one young mother and her two small children continued walking the path ahead, in front of the lead guide.

After snapping pictures of the snake, we were shocked to look up and see this mother continuing ahead with her children. We yelled to her and fortunately the mother realized what she had done and returned to the group. She and her youngsters were fortunate. With thousands of unseen dragons in the area, however, we couldn’t understand what had happened in her mind to think it was safe to proceed without a guide. It could have been a deadly choice.

The next dragon was much larger, but nearly motionless. This 10-foot male was basking in the sun and made very little movement to show it was aware of us. The rising heat probably had an impact on the dragon’s activity level.

As we concluded our trek, unharmed, we couldn’t help but recall the young mother and her children. How often do we ignorantly wade through dangers, naively thinking, “I’ve made it this far; certainly nothing bad could happen”? With some dangers there are no second chances. As parents living in the modern world, we are aware of this when it comes to playing on busy streets. When it comes to other, less obvious or foreign dangers, however, we can be just as naïve as our children.

It was a lesson in humility. We need to admit that we don’t know much about most of the world. There are those, however, who have specialized knowledge and expertise . . particularly those who have lived and survived dangers we can’t imagine. Each of us has a piece of the puzzle and we need to share our piece to help others navigate the world more safely. As we get ready to launch our new book about surviving and thriving in turbulent times, we recognize the fact that others are much more knowledgeable than we are, but we have had a unique set of experiences we hope to share with the world. 

Two of our “armed” guards
All distances in this picture were photo-deceptive! Yes, this was a sleeping dragon, but NO we weren’t really that close to it.
Photo taken from Komodo Island, Indonesia. Our clipper ship, Star Clipper, is in the distance.
Survived the dragons, now waiting for our “tender” to get us back on the ship.