Lion Fish
[Editor's Note: Due to illness, our usual writer, Beth, is taking some time off. We welcome guest blogger Dan as he fills us in on the latest Alaskan Kangaroo wanderings.]


With Beth still unable to take a boat ride, we reasoned that it was a good time for me to do some diving research and get some much-needed practice before our course to be SCUBA divemasters next month on Koh Tao island, Thailand.

I signed up for some group dives and the following morning I was on a boat headed for Hon Mun, a large island 40 minutes from the harbour. The cobalt water was very inviting. The day was hot and diving in was just the solution.

Underwater was really beautiful. When I was learning to dive, I was focusing on where my instructor was, so I wouldn't get lost. This dive I finally looked around a little. The first dive spot was Rainbow Reef and as the name suggests it was a huge bio-diverse coral garden full of hard and soft coal and a myriad of fish. I saw six lion fish, a stone fish and more other fish than I could name.

The second dive was at Madonna Rock. Named so for a possibly obvious reason, Madonna rock was lighter on the coral and abundance of fish, but had the redeeming feature of a large number of swim-throughs and caves. These were super exciting. There is a balance between buoyancy and position and controlling your movement. The 50 minute dive had five swim-throughs and two caves..

There were many fish hiding under the swim-throughs that it seemed the fish agreed with me. Swim- throughs are just fun!

* * *

Please be patient, Dan's photos from Nha Trang are coming soon!
Madonna Rock--named for the singer, not the saint
Sunday morning shopping on the Mekong River
[Editor's Note: Due to illness, our usual writer, Beth, is taking some time off. We welcome guest blogger Dan as he fills us in on the latest Alaskan Kangaroo wanderings.]

bout five hours southwest of Ho Chi Minh City, is the quaint riverside city of Can Tho.

After a such a long bus ride, there is nothing better than exploring a new town. A man at our hotel quoted us $40 U.S for an eight-hour boat up the Mekong to see the floating markets. There were two markets to see.

While we thought about it, Beth and I made our way to the river's esplanade and took a long stroll along the long walk. I thought that maybe like many countries, dealing with the boat owners direct was a sure-fire way to get a cheaper price. Also, I think we read somewhere that it should be around $3 an hour, however it prices do go up.

So we walked. Took a few pictures of the ferry that carried motorbikes and cyclists across the river. Reminisced at how Can Tho felt similar to Shantou in northern Guangdong, China. Instinctively, I turned around and saw a man in a gray “ Boss” brand t-shirt. I didn't think anything of it.

We walked some more, and came up to what looked to be the boats that would carry passengers to the floating markets. We stopped, took some pictures and showed interest in the boats and the area. No one approached us. No one tried to sell us a tour. We walked on.

“ I was sure that that would be the place to find a ride,” I said to Beth a little perplexed.

“ We'll keep looking.” I noticed she was puzzled too.

We walked along the foreshore for another five hundred metres. We passed some more boats, but no one was offering a ride. At one point, two old men laughed. I looked behind me, and there was a man wearing a “ Boss” brand t-shirt. Had I seen it before?

The sun was setting. It hung heavy in the sky and cast the golden light of photography's magic hour. We took some pictures, and made our way back the way we came. The man in the “ Boss” t-shirt was near us again.

“ Hey Beth, I think that man has been following us.”

“ Really?”

“ Let's give it a test.”

We walked about ten metres, and suddenly stopped and turned around sharply. The man was coming in the same direction as us. We stopped to take pictures, he waited nearby. We zigzagged through the park, he followed in and out of the esplanade. He was terrible at following.

We finally gave him the slip by hiding behind a short wall. He walked passed us a took a seat by on a park bench and made a call. We took a picture of him just in case there were any problems.

We finally walked past, thinking he hadn't seen us. Finally an old lady in her seventies came out to the street, near where we had stopped to look at boats earlier.

“ Psst! Do you want a boat ride tomorrow?”

Broad smiles on our faces. Finally!

She lead us to the dock where three or four women sat. We were still at the introduction stage when the women stopped and turned away from us. It was like a switch had been turned off. I turned around and coming down the path was the man in the “ Boss” t-shirt.

I stood up and walked over to him directly.

“ Hey Amigo!” I asked, “ Why are you following us?”

“ No, no.” he answered, avoiding eye contact.

“ Yes you are. Why are you following us?”

“ No, I, no...” he turned and hurried away.

The ladies sighed their relief and smiled again.

“He is bad man.” One of they ladies said. We couldn't understand why they thought this.

Had we stumbled on to a turf war? Was it the local Triads? Did the hotel send someone to follow us and try to ensure we went with their boat guy and no one else? Was it the local tourist police hoping to keep us safe?

We would never know.

I chatted with the ladies and agreed on $3 per hour and a time to meet one of them in the morning. Beth would wait this one out, her tail-bone was starting to bother her and a morning on the hard wooden seats of a river boat didn't seem like it would help any.

The actual ride was great. The sunrise on the Mekong was just gorgeous. We passed a floating gas station. The houses seemed to be on stilts rather than floating. I can't compare this to the floating markets in Thailand, however to me this floating market was larger house boats disseminating their cargo to smaller boats to be transported along the river. The larger boats had a long pole with a fruit or vegetable as the 'flag' to show all what cargo it carried.

We were at the market for a good forty minutes and continued our way back through small canals. A real slice of rural life. Fishing and boats hauling dirt. There were palm fronds that grew up straight out of the water. It was fun.

On the hard wooden plank that I sat on, three and a half hours was more than enough. I was glad I didn't sign up for longer. Time to check in on Beth.

Click here to see Dan's photos from Can Tho!

The moon over Varanasi
At five thirty a.m., the gunmetal sky above the Ganges river promised us another hot day.

Before the scorch, though, we were off to watch Varanasi wake up.

From burning dead bodies, to bathing babies and washing hotel sheets, life's rituals are performed on the holy river.

Our first sight before sunrise was the cremation ghat. Tall piles of wood are stacked in the alleys surrounding it. Families pay for the wood and taxes, our boatman, 20-year-old Sanjay, told us. Three glowing fires flickered at the beach. Men stood around without apparent grief. Are they the families or paid pallbearers, I wondered.

A few children played in the ashy mud at the river's side as the shadows in the fire played hide and seek with my imagination. Are those feet I see? A skull?

Sanjay knows the morbid interests of tourists: "There are five kinds people not burning. Five, bodies in river."

Children, pregnant women and holy men are already pure and so they don't need the flame to cleanse them, he explained. Plus, people who have died from a cobra bite or leprosy are considered already touched by god. Later we pass a bloated mass of something. Bones protrude. Animal or human?

As disturbing as it is, now I have a plot for my next novel, I think. A murder mystery.

Past the cremation site, we went to a more joyous part of the river. Men and women stood hip-deep in the water, washing their faces and arms. A few men chanted: "Om. Om. Om." Little boys played in the water, clinging to an inner tube. Older boys had plastic jugs stuck in their underpants as flotation.

One section seemed to be for laundry. Stones were piled up to make a line of washboards. Men beat hotel linens in the water rhythmically. After a good beating, the twisted fabric was thrown to a pile on the bank, and later spread on a retaining wall to sun-dry. "Not your guest house!" Sanjay told us reassuringly.

Sanjay pointed out some landmarks among the chaos of buildings and stairways that make up the riverside 'ghats.' The Ganpati guest house also houses a home for widows. A Bollywood star owns a big flashy red building. A royal family donated such-and-such palace to sadhus (holy men). And, one elaborate building belongs to the guy who collects the 200 rupee tax from the cremations at the burning ghat.

"He is very rich, but his caste is very bad," Sanjay commented.

We turned back, facing the golden sun that rose through the smog like a burning penny. Even at 7:30 the heat was getting intense. Sanjay pulled the boat up to a group of stones to let us get out for breakfast.

Varanasi had awoken.

**Click here to see photos from Varanasi**

To celebrate the new year, Dan's mom and stepdad surprised us with a harbor cruise of Mandurah, Western Australia.

Sliding by multi-million dollar homes and searching for dolphins (without luck), it was a different view of a familiar place. We stopped midway for a stroll through a bird sanctuary and some refreshment at the Mandurah Quay restaurant.

**Click here to see our photos of Mandurah**
Girls row themselves to their floating school.
Our slow 'speed boat' plowed through the flat, glassy water of Tonle Sap, making the carpet of water lilies that extended to the horizon undulate in its wake.

We started out at a nondescript pier, built by a cluster of stilt houses occupied by fishermen and women who try to sell water and bananas to tourists like us. We settled in to our straight-backed wooden seats and ate bread and butter while the boat set off into the dawn.

The lake, the largest in Southeast Asia, was busy at first, but then our boat turned into a narrow path cut through the choking purple-flowered surface plants and soon we were snapping pictures through the floating villages.

Small houses, usually just a center room, a porch and a back deck, floated on oil barrels and car tires or balanced above the water level on thin stilts. They were brightly colored: blue and purple, pink and orange. Women and men crouched on the very front of their long thin boats, paddling beside us and bringing in their nets or washing clothes. A few boats of children in the same immaculate white and blue uniforms as the city kids in Siem Reap paddled by shouting “hello!” They were on their way to a floating school, where more kids poured out onto the deck and waved at our boat going by.

We stopped for lunch at a floating convenience store and Dan bought us Styrofoam boxes of sticky rice and honey barbecued pork for a few dollars. The locals seemed happy to smile for our boatload of sunburned, camera-happy backpackers. Small kids either stared at us, mouths hanging open, or waved so hard I worried they'd fall in the water.

In mid-morning we turned again, going straight into a mangrove swamp. A channel had been cut for boat traffic, but it was barely wide enough for our thin ferry, and in places the springy branches of mangrove raked the sides of the boat and into the open-sided cabin like giant grasping fingers. They scraped the sun-lovers who'd chosen to ride topside with the luggage.

Gradually the mangroves subsided and we started seeing shallower areas and finally the yellow and russet clay banks of the river that would take us to Battambang. We saw shrimp nets suspended by small fishing platforms and the occasional tree, branches often stacked with cut logs—keeping the firewood dry.

Later, we came to small communities built on the riverbanks. As we got closer to Battambang, the houses got nicer. They started as cooking lean-tos built temporarily by docked boats, then progressed up to houses with bamboo roofs and palm-frond thatched walls and finally to concrete and paint and glass, the ones closest to the city with proud blue pipes extending to the water—indoor plumbing.

**Click here to see pictures of our trip to Battambang!**

Tourists bathe their feet in scenic Yangshuo
We are under siege.

Cold water attacks us, in long, crystal snakes from left and right.

“Get the foreigners!” one of our enemies cries.

“Get the Chinese!” Dan yells, dipping his gray and red water-gun in the river again and again, trying to defend our bamboo raft if not our diplomacy.

One of our attackers from the right flank, a tee-shirted, balding, soaking wet man gives up on his flimsy water pump and starts flinging water at us with a baseball cap, and finally his hands. His girlfriend opens her umbrella against us in a feeble attempt to protect herself from the deluge, only to get shot with water in the derriere by my father, whose bamboo raft has sneaked up from behind. She squeals so much her boyfriend calls a truce; the left flank attackers are by now laughing so hard they can't lift their water-guns.

They surrender, for now.

* * *

My father sidled up to the shifty-looking man on the street in Yangshuo, a sneaky expression on his face.

“You wanna buy a watch?” he asked, mustache twitching.

“Hey friend!” The man remembered Dad. “You want another watch?”

“No, no,” Dad said. “Do YOU want another watch?”

With a flourish Dad presented his arm, no less than three watches on it. “Wanna buy a watch?” he repeated. And started laughing. The man, a pushy watch salesman, joined in.

* * *

Yangshuo was our last destination in China before my parents flew back to Alaska and Dan and I began the second leg of our Big Trip, jetting off to Malaysia.

A tourist town tucked in the knobbly karst hills of southeastern China, Yangshuo seems to be on every tourist's itinerary. Dan and I visited once before on a three-day escape from Foshan, and liked it enough to go back for four days—and, with it's touristy bars and restaurants, it was a good way to transition between the East and the West.

The main event for us in Yangshuo was the river trip—floating down a placid stream on bamboo rafts and drinking beer while we drifted by the karst formations. Well, it was supposed to be placid and relaxing, but the waterfights livened things up. Dan tried to make it even more entertaining by always aiming his watergun at girls in white tee-shirts.

On land, my parents also caught up on their souvenir shopping, and Dan and I made a last-ditch effort to lighten our bags before our international trip.

A good end to our three-year adventure in中国.

**Click here to see our photos from Yangshuo**
We're making dreams come true this trip.

Since Dan's stepfather Colin has always wanted to sail along the Yangtze River, when it turned out that he and Dan's mom and my parents were all looking to come to visit us in China at the same time, we decided to make it happen.

We packed up our apartment in Zunyi (thanks to a lot of help from our colleagues!) and arrived in Chongqing via train a few hours before Dan's family came from Australia. My parents came on the last flight from Shanghai and the next day we set off to explore Chongqing. We spent a lot of time in the Hong Ya Dong complex, shops and restaurants rebuilt in “old” style over 11 floors going up a cliff.

We also visited the old neighborhood of CiQiKou, good for shopping for local handicraft and for people-watching, and took an ill-fated trip to the zoo to see lazy pandas. I say it was ill-fated because the zoo was under construction and it was so hot we couldn't bear walking to the exhibits that were still open. We did get to peek at the rear ends of some napping pandas though so it was worth it. We took the light rail to the zoo, which was fun because for a lot of the journey the train runs on an elevated track through the city and along the river.

On Friday we boarded the ship, the MinShan, and took off to see the gorges.

The ship wasn't much to enthuse about, but we'd gotten a good low price for our tickets. We spent most of the time on the 4th floor's sun deck sipping free tea or Snow beer and watching the muddy river flow past us.

The first full day we went to a ghost temple near Feng Du and to a temple in honor of the legendary general Zhang Fei, who is still regarded a protector of China.

The second day we visited an island city where a self-proclaimed emperor had once lived a short reign and started through the gorges themselves. In the afternoon we took a different boat through the Little Three Gorges and the Little, Little Three Gorges.

The third day we visited an impressive narrow stream called Jiu Wan He and watched acrobats performing on a tightrope about 20 stories above the river and then disembarked to look at the Three Gorges Dam. From there we took a bus to YiChang. On the boat we'd lived on picnic-style sandwiches and instant noodles, so in YiChang we went out for a big steak dinner to celebrate a successful trip.

From YiChang, Marilyn and Colin will fly back home and Dan, me and my parents will take a train to Xi'an to revisit the Terracotta Warriors on our way to Inner Mongolia.

Happy Travels!