February 09, 2011

Cairns, Australia

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This is harder than it looks -- unless it looks really hard, then it's exactly as hard as it looks.

March 02, 2006

Cairns, Australia
Day of the Locusts

[No post here yet. Just pictures.]

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February 26, 2006

Heron Island, Australia
Straddling the Tropics

Five years ago I moved down from Los Angeles to Brisbane. The period that followed is idyllic in my memory and will probably always stay that way. It might not have been so great at the time; I was lonely a lot, somewhat of an outcast with my silly accent and strange notions about tipping. But the good outdid the bad. For one thing, the Australians taught me how to drink…sort of.

Three years ago, almost to the day, I left this place; my job and my friends, on a well-documented six month trip home.

I’m back now, briefly. It feels good.

Melissa and I were greeted at baggage claim by another Matt. He held a sign that read, “Internet Dancing Sensation Matt Harding.” That's me. I'm Internet Dancing Sensation Matt Harding. Or IDSMH, if you prefer.

Turns out Matt was leaving in two days on a trip around the world. I hadn’t been in touch with him for ages and had no idea. We agreed to meet up for a couple weeks in Europe, so I’ll theoretically have someone to hold the camera during the final stage. I hope that pans out.

We had drinks in the Valley. I got to introduce Melissa to a lot of my old friends. Had a big barbecue a couple days later at Adam’s house. I wish I’d brought a camera. Oh, well.

We visited the new Pandemic office. It’s tripled in size since I left. Destroy All Humans eventually paid off and they’ve risen from obscurity to become the leading game development studio in Australia. They’ve absorbed refugees from other floundering studios and are hungry for more.

They’re doing well enough, in fact, to afford not one, no, TWO copies of Guitar Hero; the greatest videogame experience ever invented.

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Being a rock star was never an ambition of mine. Too much work. But they’ve finally figured out a way to simulate it with what I would imagine to be shocking accuracy and only a few minutes of ramp-up.

Yes, you too can perform “Iron Man,” “Ziggy Stardust,” “Ace of Spades,” and many more. And you’re actually vaguely mimicking the actions involved in hitting each note. I now know the thrill of making noises that approximate actual, recognizable songs. And the thrill is mighty.

I ache to return home and purchase the necessary equipment. It is how I intend to spend the second half of this year.

Melissa and I went to the Lone Pine Koala Sanctuary to do some dancing. Well, me dancing, anyway.

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My goal here should be pretty obvious. It took some sneakiness, but we achieved it and got a great clip.

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This belongs on a greeting card. Flip it open and it says, “No worries on your birthday, mate!”...or something equally inane.

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At the entrance, they gave out little bags of kangaroo food. The Asian chain gangs found it momentarily amusing to feed the kangaroos, but dropped their bags in front of the nearest one as soon as they grew bored. This resulted in dozens of kangaroos so overfed they couldn't even stand up.

Funny...but sort of not.

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It’s hard to look at these guys and not imagine them talking in blokey Australian accents. I don’t know how that works, exactly. Maybe it’s a lifetime of talking kangaroos in cartoons, but it just seems to suit their facial features.

The Koala Sanctuary also has one or two koalas on display.

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Actually, more like 50. They've got more in captivity than anywhere else in the world. It’s an obligatory stop for passing celebrities and dignitaries. The gift shop has a wall of fame featuring the likes of Nelson Mandela, the Pope, Marilyn Manson, and other has-beens – all with koalas clawing desperately at their sides.

The sanctuary also houses freaky giant muppet birds.

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And retired cast members from Narnia.

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We stayed for the afternoon sheep-herding performance. I can’t even speculate on where that instinct comes from in dogs, but it sure is handy.

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On the way back, I got a call from a reporter for the Brisbane Courier-Mail. She’d gotten word through the grapevine that IDSMH was in town. She had no idea who that was or what it meant, but figured it'd be worth a chat.

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It was the first time I’ve been interviewed by someone who hadn’t actually seen the dancing video. The whole thing is kind of hard to explain. She was gracious about it, but I don't think she ever really figured out why anyone should give a crap.

Fair enough.

After the awkward Q&A, we went to the center of the outdoor mall for a photo shoot in a crowded area. I had to dance, of course, but it was different from normal dancing in two key ways:

One, I normally don’t dance longer than 15 seconds at a time. This guy had me going non-stop for 10 minutes on a Brisbane summer afternoon, which left me panting.

Second, I’m not usually in the company of a professional photojournalist with a massive camera and one of those beige adventure vests that screams, “Whatever I’m taking pictures of is very, very important.” I had a hundred spectators wondering what in Xerxes’ colon is so special about a flailing imbecile on the sidewalk.

One would think I don’t mind making a spectacle of myself in public, what with my current occupation. One would be wrong about that.

By the end, the photographer was cottoning on to what it’s all about. He stopped shooting and stood there aghast.

"So someone is paying you to travel around the world, dancing badly everywhere you go?"
"Well...yes."
“My God. That's the greatest scam I’ve ever heard of. You must be some kind of genius!”

That's me. I'm some kind of genius. Or SKoG, if you prefer.

Andy picked us up early the next day to go hiking in the Glass House mountains.

Melissa and Andy had never met, but they’d both heard me talking about the other for years. Andy is a good friend and one of my favorite people. He’s the guy who brought me down to Australia. We climbed Kilimanjaro together. In the dancing video, he’s the guy laughing his ass off while the giraffe runs away.

Andy is an avid outdoorsman and experienced “bushwalker,” which is Australian for hiking. When I suggested the excursion, he threw out Mount Beerwa as an ideal and thoroughly fulfilling destination. "The first 10 or so meters are a bit steep," he warned, "but once we’re past that, the rest is easy."

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Andy is full of shit.

“Steep” means an inclined surface. It does not mean a vertical surface. That’s called a wall. You don’t hike up a wall, or “bushwalk” for that matter. It’s called rock climbing. It's hard

Melissa made it up on her own while Andy glided up and down the rock face on his magical hover-boots. I, meanwhile, was overcome with terror. I clung like a koala on Madeleine Albright's sagging bosom. Couldn’t move. Coordination isn’t my strong suit. Adrenaline-related activities aren’t much of a specialty either. The only way I made it up was with Andy’s hand on my ass, literally pushing me to the next handhold. Not my proudest moment.

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And that is not my proudest pair of shorts. I bought them in New Zealand before the Routeburn Trek, and it took me a little while to realize just how much the dumbass I looked in them.

We got to the top. The view was fantastic. And I suppose I should've been so overwhelmed by the achievement that it made the whole thing worthwhile.

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But I still just wanted to strangle the guy who brought me here.

For the descent, I wasn’t taking any chances. I sat against the rock and made my way down in a controlled slide. By the time I reached ground, my dumbass shorts had an enormous hole worn through the dumb ass. They were ruined.

Oh, darn.

With six weeks of non-stop travel behind us, we really needed a vacation.Next up after Brisbane, four days on the Great Barrier Reef hideaway of Heron Island.

Joining us: Andy and Christie, his ladyfriend and our former coworker at Pandemic.

It was the first time any of us had done a matched-couples vacation. It felt very grown up.

We flew up to Gladstone and caught a morning helicopter ride to the island.

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Heron Island is a tiny lump of sand-covered coral peeking above the surface near the reef's southern tip. It's barely a kilometer from end to end. You can round the island in half an hour.

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Heron is so named after the wild adundance of birds that live here. Tens of thousands. The staff cleans the walkways daily, but they're permanently stained with white poop.

Also, if you're not a heavy sleeper, best to bring earplugs. The birds go all night.

The island is spitting distance from the imaginary line called the Tropic of Capricorn. If the line was big and dotted like it is on maps, you'd see it in this picture.

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The accomodations are basic, but you don't spend much time there. It's mostly about the diving -- which, unfortunately, kind of stunk during our stay. Bad weather conditions allowed us only a few dives, and they weren't nearly as good as I remember from previous visits. Nevertheless...

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It was good practice with the camera for our looming trip to the South Pacific.

Plus Melissa got a lot more comfortable underwater.

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But we spent most of our time just drinking and talking and laughing.

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We played a lot of board games, a lot of pool, and some comically oversized chess.

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I learned that Balderdash is a lot less lame and yuppie-ish than I assumed. Or maybe I'm a lot more lame and yuppie-ish than I used to be.

Celebrity Heads is a game in which each player wears a card on their forehead with the name of a celebrity written on it. Players can't see their own cards, so they have to ask yes or no questions until someone guesses their celebrity correctly.

I learned that Kermit the Frog may seem tricky, but is actually fairly easy to work out. Uma Thurman, on the other hand, blends in with a dozen other blonde, thirty-something, kung-fu academy award nominees.

We watched a DVD I got sent from iFilm with entrees for their dancing video contest. My job was to judge the 11 best. Why 11? I don't know.

The videos ranged from delightful to disturbing, astonishing to embrassing, brilliant to braindead.

The nadir, perhaps, was the fat guy in the bonnet and diaper, performing a striptease with man-sized milk bottle as prop.

No one needs to see that.

Or maybe it was the similarly rotund preteen on her shingled rooftop, pantomiming some bubblegum pop tune in an outfit of rainbow fluorescence. Halfway through the performance, she takes to a nearby chair for a breather. At this, Melissa blurted, "Ohh, fatty, do you need to sit down?"

The unexpected bullying caught all of us off guard, Melissa included. She is, evidently, a closet fatty-hater.

But aren't we all?

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We spent a lot of time scanning the shoreline for sharks, which are plentiful and really -- all else aside -- incredibly graceful creatures.

This man had us fixated.

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"Now where did I put my red underpants?"

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The kid on the left there was a terror. His parents set him loose while they did their own thing and basically left the bartenders and wait staff to babysit him. He demanded a non-stop flow of milkshakes until they finally cut him off. The kid went and got his dad, who instructed them to keep giving him whatever he wanted.

I pulled a bartender aside. She told me he'd been going at a steady seven milkshakes a day since he arrived.

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I deserve this for Melissa's Cannonball Run shot in my last post.

And that's about it. Tomorrow it's back to the mainland. We've decided to try to rent a car and spend a few days driving up the coast to Cairns for our flight to Guam.

Time permitting, I'm hoping to visit the fabled "outback," which I never managed to see when I lived here -- mostly because I couldn't convince anyone to go with me. I have a captive companion now, so we'll see how it goes.

February 17, 2006

Sydney, Australia
My Happy Place Revisited

Later on, this.

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But first, I gotta talk about Emirates.

We flew them from Christchurch in New Zealand to Sydney. With their home base of Dubai in the dead center between Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia, they've seized the opportunity to serve as a major global hub.

They've only got one route for all of the Americas, so we don't hear much about them back home, but they're taking over, and doing so with panache.

Their fleet is brand spanking new and crammed with the latest in passenger-pacifying technology. Of course, a screen built into each seat, but not with the 3 or 4 movies you usually get. They provide 150, from Harry Potter to Casablanca. All movies start on demand, with pausing and rewinding -- basically a massive DVD collection for every passenger.

TV shows too. A couple dozen, including The Office, Simpsons, Seinfeld. You get three episodes from each series.

Games? Check. Forty of them.

Music? A couple hundred albums.

You can send email from your seat. Phone calls too, but that is, of course, expensive.

There are cameras mounted on the outside of the plane. You can watch the pilot's view of takeoff and landing, or switch to the bottom view and pretend you're a bombardier over Nazi Germany.

Free liquor, by the way. Menus at the start of the flight, and the food is fantastic.

Business class seats have a little private canopy over them. I only got a glimpse of the first class section cause there was a heavenly glow emanating from its core, but I believe I saw beds.

The one downside: every few hours you've gotta kneel down in the aisle, face Mecca, and praise Allah. Small price to pay, really.

We're in Sydney now. Our taxi driver coming in was Pakistani and had lived in Dubai until some banking disaster forced him to leave. With a couple hours before bedtime, we asked for his advice on what to do with a Saturday night. He shared with us his eclectic tastes.

"If you like gambling, you can go to the Star City casino. If you like fun...fun in the sense of gambling...you can go to the Star City casino."

We opted for bed.

After a month in South America where most folks are just trying to get through each day, it's refreshing to see this.

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Took the obligatory walk to the opera house.

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The place was buzzing because of the state funeral for Kerry Packer -- evidently some charismatic media magnate. He was important enough to get the smarmy Prime Minister to show up, Russell Crowe read a poem, and Tom Cruise flew down with his zombie seed vessel in tow.

The press feigned outrage at a woman in her third trimester taking a fifteen hour flight. I don't think they fully considered the benefits of Maverick's private jet. Not exactly ValueJet coach.

Through the glass you can see the wait staff being instructed never to look Russell Crowe in the eye.

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...yes, I'm now writing Jay Leno jokes.

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Folks glommed around the entrance, no doubt to glimpse the raw, brooding manliness of their Prime Minister.

As the "mourners" rolled out, there was not a celebrity in sight, so we had to start making up our own.

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That's Prince William.

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Cameron Manheim from The Practice. Guess she's put the weight back on.

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Stanley Tucci, looking fabulous.

We checked out the Sydney Museum of Whatever We've Got Lying Around. They had a big mineral and crystal display, which Melissa was giddy to check out. I never knew to be interested in that sort of thing, but it was actually really neat.

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We visited the Sydney aquarium -- one of the best anywhere. Their shark tank is a fine spectacle.

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Found a great spot for a dancing clip.

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Had to run back there first thing the next morning so we could have the giant window to ourselves and avoid the Asian snapshot brigade. It worked.

And that was our visit. Tomorrow we head up to Brisbane for five easy days catching up with old friends. Sort of a vacation from our vacation.

But wait, I promised dolphins. I must deliver dolphins.

The day after finishing our Routeburn hike, we flew to Christchurch with the hopes of renting a car and driving up to Kaikoura. That plan went pear-shaped quickly. We called several dozen rental offices from the airport and found them all sold out. They actually laughed at our inquiries, as if a car rental place would have any cars available to rent.

A humble suggestion for the people of New Zealand: buy more rental cars.

We eventually found one place that MIGHT have a station wagon in a couple hours, assuming it was brought in on time. That panned out, and the wait gave us an opportunity to explore Christchurch.

Lovely place. Great atmosphere. Just the right size, and with easy access to all the South Island and its myriad leisure activities.

I speak now to you, the reader. If the opportunity arises to work and live in Christchurch for a year or so, don't blink. Take it. Even if it's washing dishes, take it. I say that knowing it will never happen, as there is a mile-long cue of young Europeans biding their time in hostel beds, waiting to don the disposable plastic gloves of a Subway cashier.

Our trip to New Zealand was essentially a one-week "Best of" compilation from my longer visit three years ago. The two best things I did on the previous visit were trekking and kayaking with dolphins, both of which I was eager to do again.

I've been a broken record about the kayaking thing for years. It was sublime in a way I can't put words to. It gave me my happy place. I return there in my mind, often. I wanted Melissa to know what I'd been going on about.

We called the kayaking office from a pay phone in Christchurch. The guy said it was unlikely they'd be seeing dolphins anytime soon. The brief window when they come close enough to shore starts in late February and ends in March. We were a couple weeks early. Nevertheless, he said they were going out at 4:30pm and we were welcome to join if we could make it in time.

By the time we got the car, we had less than two hours left and a two hour drive ahead of us. Melissa felt, with quite a bit of logic backing her up, that it would be sensible to slow down and go kayaking the next morning instead. But I had this thing in my head telling me we had to get there now, that it had to be today.

When we got to the office, they'd left already. The woman at the desk said they took an extra kayak along in case we showed up and we could still try to make it.

We raced across town and found the kayaks sliding into the water. Seconds to spare.

It was us, a British couple, and a guy from Ireland. The guide was named Matt. He remembered me from three years ago.

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I told him I was hoping for a repeat of what I saw last time. He said it'd been weeks since they'd seen any sign of dolphins, and twice in a lifetime was probably too much for me to hope for. But we'd have no problem seeing lots of seals.

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As luck would have it, Matt happened to be making a new brochure and he had a professional photographer along for the ride. We struck a deal to get all his shots burned on a disc for $20. This precluded the need for us to bother taking pictures. It also meant the images were a hundred times better than either of us could've taken. And since he was getting paid for it, we got loads of personal glamour shots thrown in.

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I call that last pose Desert Sunset.

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And that one is Leathery Squint.

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This one is very particular and difficult to achieve. I call it Tom Cruise Playing in the Park with His Adopted Children. Perhaps it was presciently inspired.

Melissa did well too.

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She also got some doozies.

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I call that one Cannonball Run Blooper Reel.

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And that one, well...some things are beyond naming.

The goofy expression materialized as we watched a seal eat an octopus, so it was by no means unwarranted.

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The seal would isolate one tentacle at a time between its teeth and jerk it out of the water, hurling the still-vaguely-alive octopus through the air like a pinwheel. Once the tentacle was removed, the seal would gulp it down whole.

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The joyous feast continued until only the central hub remained. Finally the seal bit down on its head, bursting the ink sack and turning the surrounding water a murky black.

Disgust and fascination battled to a standstill.

Around this time, our guide noticed a big blue boat moving toward us from across the bay. More than a little surprised, he called out "Paddle! Everyone paddle like your life depends on it!"

Melissa and I led the pack. We got about a hundred yards from the whale watching boat, stopped, and waited. A few heads bobbed on the surface between us and the boat. It was a pod.

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Matt shouted, "Here they come!"

And they did.

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Pardon the analogy, but it's like having a host of angels swarm around you. They have an overwhelming energy. They come from a better place. They're fully aware of your presence and willing to, ever-so briefly, warm you with their glow.

They also want you to see all the cool tricks they can do.

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These are not trained animals. There are no hoops. No one is handing out fish. It's Duskys. These guys just love to soar.

From past experience, I told Melissa to start paddling. They followed alongside us, racing. Some leapt out of the water and splashed us coming down.

This was what I wanted to share. This was my happy place. And now it's hers too.

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That's one of several shots I wouldn't have had a chance in hell of getting. It's like shooting clay pigeons.

As quickly as they appeared, they were gone. Something like that can't last more than a moment. But a moment was enough.

Matt took us back across the bay to whaler's point. The small peninsula used to be a busy whaling station. I went there on foot on my last visit and was struck by the stink of death that hung over the place. Matt confirmed the weird knack animals have for dying on that little piece of land. He pointed to a nearby cliff where grazing sheep routinely plummet to their deaths.

The image this conjured almost made me flip the kayak from laughing so hard.

Matt showed us how to kayak surf.

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We started back to shore.

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From now on I'm bringing a professional photographer everywhere I go.

On the way we spotted gajillions of tiny creatures clustered together in the water.

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Krill maybe? No, too small. I'm not sure what it was, but it probably has something to do with the incredible abundance of macro ocean life that hangs out in the waters of Kaikoura.

We finished the kayak trip, both of us still glowing. To top it all off, it was Valentine's Day, so I was off the hook for my part and Melissa treated me to a fancy dinner.

With the dolphin thing checked off, we had the next day to just kick around. Whale watching was a fairly obvious option, especially since Melissa had never seen one. But the boats are clogged with the buttpack set and I'm generally skiddish about anything that involves hordes of people taking snapshots in a large vehicle of any sort.

Another option, surprisingly not much more expensive, but still very pricey: sperm whale spotting plane rides.

Sperm whales are elusive. They feed in the open ocean at incredible depths. There are few places on Earth where they come close to shore with reliable frequency. And of them, even fewer are in countries with the infrastructure to support commercial tracking.

Kaikoura is at the top of a very short list.

The town's surrounding waters have a unique topography; dropping off into the abyss just beyond shore. Down at the bottom is who-knows-what. Giant squid, very likely, as they'd attract the sperm whales. Whatever it is, it brings in just about everything with a blowhole.

We opted for the plane ride. It's very short -- no more than 30 minutes. But they usually know where the sperm whales are, go straight to them, and circle around until the whales fill their lungs and dive.

We got a few glimpses.

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The pictures are fuzzy. My camera isn't ideal for long-range photography, but I did my best.

Unlike the more common humpbacks, sperm whales aren't very gregarious. They pay no attention to humans unless those humans are firing harpoons at them. And when that happens, the attention they pay isn't the kind you want.

This shot gives a reasonable idea of scale.

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The three we saw were fairly young bulls, nowhere near full-grown. It wasn't quite the spectacle we'd hoped, but still pretty neat to see them from the air, head to tail.

With some extra flight time paid for and no more whales to be seen, the pilot gave us a pleasant tour of the surrounding inland area.

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The next morning we drove back to Christchurch for the aforementioned flight to Sydney. We drove behind a pick-up truck with a freshly-gutted boar flashing its innards at us.

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Once again, disgust and fascination did battle. This time, disgust won.

April 23, 2003

Brisbane, Australia
Fending Off Wild Dingoes

I just stepped off an express commuter train heading out from the city center and found an old-fashioned steam locomotive zipping through the station on the opposite track. It had a chimney up front with smoke pouring out, wooden passenger cars, caboose, the whole shebang. As a lover of the absurd, I appreciated it greatly.

Speaking of absurd, a shopping center in Guam was using this Yak for promotional purposes. Shop with us, ride our yak.

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I’ve been getting ready to leave for the second and much longer part of my trip. I go to Singapore on Sunday. I’ll stay there for a few days to get some of the visas I’ll need in later countries. I also want to buy a nice digital camera and I understand Singapore is a good place to do it. After that I’ll have about four weeks to make my way up through Malaysia to Phuket, Thailand. I plan on seeing Kuala Lumpur, Penang, and hopefully a lot of the islands and beaches along the coasts of Malaysia and southern Thailand.

I’m flirting with the idea of flying over to Brunei for a few days. It sounds interesting, and it’d be nice to get another country under my belt.

From Phuket, I’m flying to Hanoi in Vietnam to meet up with my dear friend, Bradford. Brad and I will spend a couple weeks in the north of the country, then I’m heading off on June 5th to meet my cousin Thomas in Delhi, India.

Thomas and I have about six weeks to do whatever we want. We’ve decided to leave our options open in case we love India and want to spend the whole time there – as has been suggested to both of us. But if we do decide to move on, we’ve got Nepal, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand on the itinerary. A bit much, I know. We’ll see what we have time for.

On July 16th, we fly to Beijing. We’ll hang out there for a couple days, then join up with a tour group to catch one of the longest train routes in the world: Beijing to Moscow. The thirteen day trip will include stops in Mongolia and Russia.

From Moscow, I’m going to Prague for a couple days. I’m not sure if Thomas is joining me for that. Then on the 7th of August I’m flying to New York, where I’ll meet up with my friend, Sophie. We’re going to spend a while in New York, then rent a car and drive cross-country to Seattle. Soph has never been to America, and I’m excited to show her we’re not all a bunch of gun-toting, jingoistic lunatics. So please put your guns away when we’re in town. That means you!

I assume America’s love affair with Colin Farrell is going to start any minute now.

I spent Easter weekend on Fraser Island with a bunch of friends: Naomi, Sophie, Andy, Tristan, Dave, Peter, Mary, Matt K., and me. Naomi rented a house for the nine of us. It rained intermittently the entire time, so between excursions to lakes and beaches, we played a whole lot of Boggle. That was just fine with me. I can't ever get enough of Boggle. And there was some pretty good competition amongst the group.

As I’ve mentioned already, Fraser Island is the largest sand island in the world. The sand has a nutrient in it that allows for tree growth, so it’s lush and wooded in parts, but there are also lots of vast, rolling sand dunes. We trekked pretty far into one of them -- had the whole line of footprints trailing off into the horizon thing happening -- then we got caught in a harsh, pounding rain. There’s nowhere to hide in the desert.

There are no paved roads on Fraser, and the only way to get up and down the island is by driving on the beach. So you pretty much have to have a 4WD. We had one to split between all of us, so we went up in two groups. I was in the second group of four.

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You’re completely at the mercy of the tides. There’s a window of several hours at low tide, and you have to schedule all your transportation during that time. If you're driving in high tide, you’ll get swept away.

A fairly common event is when cars get stuck in the sand at low tide, then submerged as the ocean slowly rolls in. There’s a wall of shame at a gas station on the mainland showing all the cars that’ve been lost.

Fraser has a lot of wild dingoes living on it. They look like normal dogs, so you want to run over and pet them, but they will gnaw your hand off. Incidents are common on the island. They often attack small children, and occasionally they’ll go after bigger prey. A German backpacker was recently dragged out of his tent by his leg and mauled a bit before scaring them away.

When the ferry dropped us off, we had to wait on the beach for the other group to come pick us up in the 4WD. While we were waiting, two dingoes came out of the woods and started checking us out. That was fun.

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We went to a fresh water lake on the second day. The water gets filtered by the sand, so it’s really clean. It’s like drinking spring water.

One of these guys has been touring tropical islands for the last month. The other has been sitting in front of a computer, programming. Can you guess which is which?

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The ladies of Fraser Island.

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Some drunk guy offered to take a group photo of us. He had a bit of trouble with the concept of point and shoot, but eventually worked it out.

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Here’s me being retarded.

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I brought my laptop to see what constellations were out, but most of the time it was too cloudy to see anything. The guy in the baseball shirt is Matt K. He looks like he’s mugging for the camera, but actually that’s how he always looks when he drinks.

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Andy has an incredible talent for sleeping. When I’ve traveled with him before, I’ve always been awed by his ability to pass out mid-sentence under the strangest of circumstances. But I’d never seen him fall asleep in a tree before.

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On the second night, Naomi woke up to the smell of fire. Worried that the cabin was burning down, she grabbed a flashlight and ran out of the bedroom. When she got to the next room where I was sleeping on the floor, she realized the powerful smell was not a fire. It was actually coming from my feet.

Here’s the thing: I have beautiful feet. They are soft, tender, and vulnerable when put to frequent use. These are feet that have never worked an honest day. The last month has been very hard on them. They are blistered and bruised. Some of those wounds have not been tended to adequately. The result is bacteria, and bacteria smells. I don’t always have smelly feet, but lately they’ve gotten pretty bad.

Okay, really really bad.

I’m on it now. I’m taking care of it.

I gained back most of the weight I lost in Micronesia, as the cornerstone of my diet over the weekend was chips and sausages. There were many great barbequed meals.

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Tristan brought a kite. He let me fly it and took a very cool picture.

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On the third day, Matt K., Sophie, Dave, and Mary left. So there were only five of us for the last two days. We went to a shipwreck called the Meheno. It was a luxury liner built in Scotland in 1905 to transport folks down under. It was used as a hospital ship in WWI. In 1935, it sank while being towed to Japan for scrap.

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Irony, how I adore thee.

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I should be Tristan’s official photographer, cause whenever I take a picture of him, he looks like a handsome bastard. Of course, it’s possible he just IS a handsome bastard. Here are several variations on his latest pose: Mountain Stream.

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Peter is also a handsome bastard.

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Andy is just a bastard.

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A really generous bastard. He’s putting me up while I’m here, and I now aspire to one day be as good of a host as he is. I have my own bedroom and bathroom, a clean towel with an unopened bar of soap, and a wireless network card for my laptop with a broadband internet connection.

He even places mints on my bed every night, folds the end of the toilet paper into a triangle, and puts those paper strips on the toilet seat so I know it’s been sanitized. It’s amazing.

He tolerates me stinking up his place with my smelly shoes.

He also paid for the carpet cleaning when I accidentally flooded his apartment in the process of doing my laundry. I set it to warm after he put it on cold for me. He didn’t specifically say, “don’t use warm, cause it will flood my apartment,” but I still feel really bad. I tried to pay, but he wasn’t having any of it.

I hate arguing about who pays for stuff. I feel uncomfortable and am usually the first to relent. It’s a bad habit, but it’s just so awkward shoving money at people repeatedly.

This is Indian Head.

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It’s a rock that juts out over the beach. It was named Indian Head by…

…let the suspense build…

Good ol’ Captain Cook. I guess he thought it looked like an Indian from out on the water. It looks like a big rock to me.

He also gave the island the name of Great Sandy, which it still carries in the form of Great Sandy National Park. He was right about that. It sure is sandy.

Here’s a picture of some woman’s ass.

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We had lunch at the Champagne Pools. They were cold and the water didn’t taste like champagne at all. Andy fell asleep again – this time standing upright against a rock.

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And that pretty much takes care of Fraser. It was great. I really needed a vacation.

…that was sarcasm.

I picked up some fancy gear for the next leg of my trip yesterday. I got some spray-on bandages. They call it “plastic skin.” It’s kind of horrifying, but really neat too. I got one of those wonder towels that’s small and absorbent and never gets wet. I was contemplating getting a bigger luggage bag, cause my Timberland is bursting at the seams, but then I found out about luggage compressors and got one of those instead. It’s a canvas bag with straps all around it that you put your clothes in. You pull the straps as tight as you can and your clothes take up half the space they used to. You get this super-dense block of condensed clothing matter. Oh, and I got some foot odor spray.

Mom, I got travel insurance.

April 16, 2003

Brisbane, Australia
Is it Worse to Eat Spam or Dog?

Here’s a funny joke:

A guy walks into an elevator with six other people. He sneezes. By the time the doors open up, three of them are dead and the rest have an unpleasant couple weeks to look forward to.

Get it?

That’s right, good ol’ SARS has got me benched in Australia for a little while. Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Hong Kong, Vietnam. If I were traveling the same itinerary two months ago, I’d be Mr. Quarantine right now – the guy on everyone’s dance card.

As it happened, I was handled with great caution anyway when I arrived in Brisbane. I counted one person among my friends who didn’t ask if I had SARS within the first ten seconds of encountering me (Thanks Nae!). This is perfectly understandable, as the rest of the world is, after all, one giant disease-ridden deathtrap.

And word of my rash spread through town faster than the rash spread through me. I didn’t realize how many people were reading this crap until I got all the nervous, arms-length inspections.

The good news: the rash is all-but gone. Got a couple lingering scars and a little bit of itching, but otherwise okay. And fortunately, the Shock and Awe phase of the rash ended just before I arrived.

I’m going to keep using that term until it’s well past its Sell By date. I declare it the new “hanging chad.” A modern “can’t we all just get along?” The “I did not have sexual relations with that woman” of our time.

I communicate with other human beings primarily through anecdotes, obscure factoids, and unfounded assertions. It has, therefore, been very difficult for me coming back here and finding that most people have been reading this. An entire month’s worth of material has been completely used up, so there’s really not much I can say to people.

“How was your trip?”
“It was great. I went diving in the –”
“Read it.”
“I kayaked with a –”
“Old news.”
“In Micronesia, they eat –”
“Spam. Know all about it.”
“Well, did you know that –”
“Yes…Yes. I know.”

There is only one trivial anecdote I forgot to relay, and I’ve been coveting that one like the last surviving puppy from an anemic litter. I’m going to sacrifice my last puppy now, cause that’s how much it’s worth to me to entertain you.

This is dead dog-related, actually. Most of the islands in Micronesia are covered in dogs. They are sickly strays and they often sleep in the middle of the road. Driving to my hotel in Pohnpei with Johnson, we were swerving from side to side to let sleeping dogs lie. There were also chickens running amok, and we even stopped in front of a giant pig that was staring us down. He had no interest in moving.

So I asked Johnson if people kept these dogs as pets, and if there was a high mortality rate with all of them hanging out on the road. He said they didn’t get hit much, cause they were smart enough to know when to get out of the way. The real problem, he said, was all the people on the island who ate dog. He said his neighbors ate it a lot, and as a result he’s had three of his pets go missing in the last couple years.

That’s a pretty heavy thing to hold over your neighbor.

Johnson had never eaten dog, but he ate Spam every day. I still can’t decide which is worse. If I were a less emotional creature, I’d say Spam is without a doubt the poorer culinary and nutritional option.

I’m going to try to keep quiet about the war for a while. I know I went a little off the deep end last time. I’d just like to say that my views do not necessarily reflect those of this network, and I apologize for any distress they may have caused.

It goes to show you how dangerous it can be to interpret information and form your own opinion on things. It can get very messy.

So let me just clarify by saying that I support the troops, I support our commander in chief, and I think we’re doing a great job over there. We’re showing those people in that general area what happens when we are reasonably certain that they could potentially have the future capability of messing with us at some point. Take that, Saddam!

People have been very accommodating about scheduling events for my visit here. I went to Soph’s housewarming party, which was punk-themed even though there was no punk music actually played.

That reminds me, anyone having a party soon and looking for a theme idea: SARS. All you need is the masks.

On Sunday I went go-karting with the people formerly known as my co-workers.

Gokartbrad Gokartdan

Gokartblah Gokartandyme

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I had a freaking blast doing that. It was a swirling miasma of sublime joy. A turgid symphony, ebullient with the swollen offerings of turbine and gas.

And the helmets looked really funny on everyone.

It was sort of halfway between videogame and real life. The speeds were such that we couldn’t really hurt ourselves, so we could get in some pretty nasty pile-ups and walk away unscathed. But obviously it was really happening, so ya know, that makes it less like a videogame.

For one reason or another, I can’t share a lot of what I’ve been doing this week. But trust me, it’s been amusing.

It’s hard popping back over here, though, after going through some very difficult and conclusive goodbyes. I know some people would kind of have preferred that I just stay gone, and I can understand that. I don’t really know what to say or do about it, but I understand and on some level I feel the same way.

A couple months ago I got in a cab here in Brisbane with a driver who had a very thick German accent. It wasn’t a Colonel Klink accent – it was more like Albert Einstein. But he was somewhere in his 60’s, and when you do the math on that, it becomes intriguing.

I asked him where he was from, and he confirmed it was Germany. I asked him where in Germany, and he said Dresden.

Half my audience already knows this story. Less than half of the remaining half know about Dresden. So for their benefit:

Starting on February 13th, 1945, Dresden was the site of the most destructive bombing raid in history. It’s impossible to count the casualties, but even the most conservative estimates put the death toll well above the bombings of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. The reason they couldn’t count the casualties is because so many bombs were dropped, creating a fire so great that something called a firestorm occurred. A firestorm is when all the separate fires in a region create so much heat in the sky that the flames are drawn upward. Cold air rushes in from the sides and sucks everything, including people, into the singular tower of flame growing in the center. The heat was so powerful in Dresdan that the entire city was literally incinerated. It was the kind of thing God did in the Old Testament when he was really, really mad.

So when the guy told me he was from Dresden, I had to ask, “were you there?”

“Ya, ya,” he said. “I survived the bombing of Dresden.”

I asked him as politely as I could if he would mind talking about how he survived. He said his father took him into a building and they ran up to the fifth floor to wait it out. I don’t know what the theory was behind doing that, but it turned out to either be incredibly clever or a miracle of miracles, as most of the people who went into underground bunkers suffocated under the flames.

Incidentally, my favorite writer, Kurt Vonnegut, was in one of those underground bunkers and he survived to write a book about it. The book is called Slaughterhouse Five (It’s good. Go read it.). So that’s how I knew all about Dresden.

I should also mention that Dresden was not an important military target. Most of the people killed were civilians, and it is considered by many to have been a shameful act, motivated primarily by revenge.

We talked for a while longer. I mostly just listened and occasionally asked questions. Finally I thanked him, paid for the ride, got out of the car, and walked across the street. Before he drove off, he called me back over to tell me something.

He knew I was American, and he wanted me to know that he didn’t feel any anger toward the American soldiers who dropped all those bombs on him. He said it was war and everyone does bad things – certainly the Germans did plenty of them. It was a tough thing to know how to react to, so I just thanked him again.

Fast forward to two nights ago. I get in a cab and I hear that same German accent. 10,000 cabbies in Brisbane and there he was. His name is Hans, and he remembered me well. The first thing he said to me was, “Boy, how about this shit going on now?”

So we talked about this new war for a while. It was great getting the perspective of someone who’s seen the bad stuff that happens in wars from both sides. I won’t share his thoughts, cause I’m trying to tone down the rhetoric and I’ve already gone over my quota for today. Suffice it to say, he wasn’t too fond of recent US foreign policy decisions.

I talked to my dad last night for the first time in ages and was telling him about diving through the wrecks in Chuuk. He asked if Chuuk was anywhere near Truk, and I explained they are one in the same.

Here’s something I knew about my grandfather: After the attack on Pearl Harbor, he joined the army as an officer stationed in Hawaii.

Here’s something I didn’t know about my grandfather: He spent two years working out of a volcano on Honolulu called Diamond Head, helping to plan a land invasion of Truk – one of the largest and most threatening bases in the Japanese military. It was the base where the Japanese WOULD have launched their full-on invasion of Hawaii, if they’d ever actually tried.

The invasion of Truk never happened. Once the US learned how great the cost in lives was for taking a Japanese-held island, and once they discovered how short the Japanese were on fuel resources, they decided it wasn’t necessary. Instead, they could just bomb the crap out of it by air and move on. And that’s what they did. Now it’s the greatest wreck diving site in the world, and I was there, unknowingly carrying out a very belated invasion.

The irony has come into focus now of that moment in the Japanese cave with the gun pointed out at sea and those three Chuukese hoodlums staring at me. That was it: the great siege, 60 years in the making. And I was too worried about getting mugged to take a picture.

But nevermind that. I shouldn’t have taken a picture. I should’ve planted a flag.

That’s enough war stuff. I’m going away to Fraser Island for the weekend with a bunch of friends. It’s the largest sand island in the world, so I’m sure I’ll have plenty to say about it.

Oh yeah, and I went to Australia Zoo today with Eric. That’s the park owned by television personality and ADHD archetype, Steve Irwin – a.k.a. Crocodile Hunter. The park was very nice, and I’m glad I finally went to it. I saw a bunch of World’s Mosts:

World’s longest snake – Reticulated Python
Grows up to 34 feet.

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World’s most venomous snake - Inland Taipan
Could kill 100,000 mice with the venom from one bite…if you had 100,000 mice, a lot of time on your hands, and a world class mean streak.

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World’s most awesome name for a snake – Northern Death Adder
’Nuff said.

March 04, 2003

Brisbane, Australia
Going Away Party

My last night in Australia.

Boy, this is hard.

Leaving places is hard. Leaving people is hard. Change is hard.

I’m not really thinking about the trip at all. Just thinking about being here, and all I’m giving up. Last night I tried to come up with everything in my life that isn’t about to change completely. There are a few things. A few big things. But it’s not a long list.

I’m terribly sad. It all kind of hit me at the end like a freight train.

I’m glad it didn’t hit earlier. I got to keep having fun right up to the buzzer. Here are some pictures from the going away party:

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I did everything I could to salvage this one, but it just didn’t come together. Crying shame.

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This would’ve been okay if a certain 9 foot tall communist hadn’t mucked it up.

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A moment was captured in the margins here. Something primal and unfettered. I don’t know what was happening here, but it’s freaking me out!

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Plucky, bold, and filled with moxy, Dan hatches a plan.

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Shame. Humiliation. A man who knows failure. Like Icarus, he soared higher than his wings could carry him.

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This is what an amateur drunk looks like.

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And this is the belligerent gaze of a seasoned pro.

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Booze-stained shirt, half-empty bottle of whiskey, dangerously shifty expression. Use the clues provided to guess Alex’s blood alcohol level.

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Visual poetry.

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You know, it’d have been funnier if he HADN’T actually stuck his tongue in my ear.

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Tristan politely rebuffs Eric’s advances.

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This guy, I…umm…met at the party.

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Words fail.

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When you can see the fillings, that means he’s happy.

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You know, one guy just keeps popping up in all these pictures.

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“I just want you to know that I love you guys. And I am French.”

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Something’s missing here.

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Ah, yes. That was it.

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“I just want you to know that I love you. And also, I am French.”

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Yyyyep.

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When they cut me open they found a license plate, a boot, and an issue of LIFE magazine from 1953.

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Yyyyyyyep.

February 27, 2003

Brisbane, Australia
On the Subject of Islands

Islands are fantastic. As landforms go, they’re the tops.

Would Dr. Moreau have set up shop in a fjord? Would Captain Flint have hid his gold on Treasure Peninsula? Would troubled vacationers seek out Mr. Rourke on Fantasy Isthmus?

I don’t think so.

You can’t beat islands for that kind of stuff. Oh sure, you’ve got your occasional mountain peak with a mysterious castle atop it, but islands pretty much have the market cornered. Prospero had his own island. So did Ulysses' Cyclops. The dismembered head of Orpheus sits on an island to this day, pining for his lost love, Euridice. Lesbians come from an island. The Prisoner was stuck on one. So were Robinson Crusoe and Swiss Family Robinson. Godzilla shared his with a whole bunch of other monsters. So did King Kong. And let’s not forget Jurassic Park.

What's with the designation: Swiss Family Robinson? Where did they get that? Can I be American Person Matt?

Tyco Brahe is one of my favorite historical figures. His island was given to him by the King of Denmark. Those poor bastards, the Rapa Nui, got stuck on Easter Island and built all those giant heads to try and get the hell off. The Galapagos islands are where Darwin thought up evolution. The Azores are in the middle of the Atlantic. They were settled by the Portuguese seven hundred years ago. Who knew there were islands in the middle of the Atlantic?

You know what else is great about islands? When you cluster a whole bunch of them together, you get an archipelago. That’s a fun word to say.

I’m looking forward to Micronesia.

For those who don’t know much about the place, it’s citizens are not, as some people suspect, incredibly tiny.

Tonight I had dinner with my dear friend, Brad. He came up with an idea for a sitcom about a rich, gay, clean-freak, New York attorney living in an apartment with a serial killer. They’d bicker a lot about stains on the carpet and things left in the fridge, but in the end you'd know they couldn’t get by without each other. The show would be called “Dahmer and Greg.”

How many of you saw that punch line coming?

It’s been raining a lot lately. I keep my laptop out on the balcony these days, so its weather-resistance has been thoroughly tested. It passed.

I’ve got a lot of stuff left to do. I’ve done pretty well these last two weeks, but I’ve been taking it easy more than I should have. Now I’ve got big visa worries. A lot of the countries I’m going to are hard to get visas for. I need to send my passport off to about 4 different consulates and wait a week or more for each one. That’s hard to do when you’re country-hopping and have no mailing address. I’m going to call the consulates tomorrow. I’m not sure how I’m going to resolve this problem.

I don’t think anyone likes hearing stories about people discovering they’re due enormous tax refunds, so I’m going to keep that one to myself. Rest well knowing that I’ll surely get bitten in the ass for it sooner or later.

Less than 6 days until I leave.

That’s what Bush is waiting for. He wants to preemptively invade a poor, isolated country on the basis of paranoid suspicion and turn the overwhelming majority of international sentiment violently against the U.S. population while I’m actually in the air.

You only need to stall until Wednesday, George.

I purchased some Melatonin today. They sell it over the counter, but it's heavily diluted. And you can't get it by prescription in Australia, so this watered-down homeopathic crap is all I can take. Tonight I begin the experiment. I'm going to try a heavy dose and see what happens. Sounds like a good idea, right?

Good thing I'm unemployed.

I'm also going to take some Melanin to see if I can make myself black.

February 24, 2003

Brisbane, Australia
Preparations

I can upload images into my journal. Dig it:

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Once I hit the road, I should be able to add pictures from my digital camera without too much trouble.

The trip itinerary is shifting a bit, but I don’t feel like going through it now. Will do it later. It looks like I’ll be having a fair amount of company, which is great.

Was just standing at a street corner in the valley on my way back from grabbing dinner. A gay couple was having a fight right next to me. One of the guys tearfully proclaimed, “What hurts me more than anything is that you put a price on our relationship.”

I looked around. There was no one holding cue cards. He came up with that gem all by himself.

What hurts me more than anything is when the other person in a relationship comes up with some unbearably trite and cringe-worthy statement like that and says it with a straight face. All sentiment is lost on me and I become focused on the urgent need for a script doctor. But of course you can’t say anything. You have to look dour and forlorn while the other person prattles off whatever they heard on Dawson’s Creek last night.

I went diving today in Moreton Bay. Saw a couple really big turtles. But the visibility was poor, the surge was high, and the boat was overcrowded. People were vomiting left and right. The worst, though, was the food scraps bucket they had in the middle of the deck where people were stowing their gear. They passed it around for people to throw up in when they couldn’t make it to the side. No one in the crew thought to clean out or cover the bucket, so it just sat there while people were getting their gear on – a mixture of half-eaten and fully-eaten food swishing around. It didn’t help the situation.

I have been blessed with an iron constitution. Never been seasick.

I’m sunburned, though. I’m an idiot about sunscreen.

Booked my ticket to New Zealand. And I reserved a spot on the Milford Trek, a three day hike through Milford Sound that is supposed to be one of the finest in the world. They limit the number of people allowed on the track at one time to a very small number, so in peak season you have to book months in advance. I was only booking 2 weeks in advance, but a spot opened up and I got lucky.

I had a very exciting medical development last week. I got a bunch of test results back and found out I have a staggeringly low melatonin level. Melatonin is a hormone that regulates your sleep patterns. You produce it at night and it puts you to sleep. Apparently my body hardly produces any at all, which is why I’m up at 2 in the morning typing this after getting 2 hours of sleep last night. I don’t fully understand how it works, and a lot of it is surely psychological as well, but it sounds like my sleep trigger is all gummed up. You can actually take melatonin to increase your levels. I haven’t tried it yet, but I’m hoping it’ll work. If it does, that could really change my life a lot. I’m chronically late for work and have had trouble waking up in the morning all my life. I’ve tried to change my behavior for years with marginal success, but not nearly enough. So…yeah. We’ll see what happens with that.

I’ve got to take the test again to make sure the results weren’t screwy.

I went to a physiotherapist about my wrist pain from holding the mouse wrong. Physiotherapists are fun. This one had all sorts of cool toys. She used one of those sonic wave things to do something to do with muscle inflammation in my arm. Then she had me put on sunglasses and started bombarding my wrist with laser beams to stimulate the release of endorphins and relieve pain naturally. Then she hooked wires up to my arm and start running a current through it. I could see my fingers bending back involuntarily as she upped the current. I don’t know what that was supposed to do, but it was neat!

February 21, 2003

Brisbane, Australia
Subterranean Guamanian Death Trap

I used to trust Lonely Planet guides.

I have two guides for Micronesia. One is a Lonely Planet, the other is a Periplus Action Guide to diving in the Pacific.

Here’s what the Lonely Planet guide has to say about diving in Guam:

“Guam’s waters are home to numerous war wrecks and a rich array of marine life – there are more than 800 species of fish and 300 species of coral.”

That’s pretty much all that’s in there for that particular subject. Now here’s what the Periplus Action Guide has to say:

“Do not underestimate Guam’s waters. They claim as many as twenty people a year.”

I recognize that diving in Guam isn’t the sole focus of the Lonely Planet Micronesia guide. They’ve got a lot of stuff to cover in a brisk 368 pages, so they only give cursory details on this particular subject. But I think they left out a really important statistic. I want to know the average annual death toll for a particular activity if it’s anywhere higher than 0.

Here’s what the Lonely Planet guide says about the Tokai Maru dive site:

“One of the more unusual wreck dives is to the Tokai Maru, a Japanese freighter bombed during WWII in Apra Harbor...The uppermost part of the Tokai Maru is only 40 feet from the water’s surface, so it can make a good beginner dive.”

And here’s what the lurid sensationalists at Periplus have to say:

“Penetration of either of these wrecks is strongly discouraged, and there is little to see inside. Several people have died trying to do so.”

…died!

So Lonely Planet is telling people it’s a good beginner dive, and Periplus is saying not to go near it cause you might die.

Twenty people a year are killed in the waters of Guam because of the strong, unpredictable currents, and Lonely Planet doesn’t mention it anywhere.

I’m only there a day. I think I’m going to abstain from diving on that particular island.

My caring and thoughtful former coworkers at Pandemic got me the Periplus guide as a going away present. Thanks folks!