February 18, 2015 § Leave a comment
Balam, a dark grey bottle nose dolphin, gingerly swam on his back with a colorful container balanced between his fins. He was bringing me a gift, Valerie, his trainer, said. But about halfway across the lagoon, the container rolled off his belly, so he flipped over and started pushing it with his nose. I laughed, delighted, utterly unaware of what was inside.
When Jonathan first told me that my Valentine’s day gift was a dolphin “trainer for a day” course, I was ecstatic. I had swam with dolphins once before, but this opportunity seemed even better: a full-day, immersive dolphin experience.
The dolphin experience was scheduled to be on Valentine’s day, sandwiched between two days of drift diving along the reefs of Cozumel and two days of cave diving in the cenotes in Tulum. As soon as we arrived at the facility, I was giddy like a little kid at a candy shop.
After some introductory lectures on how to handle the dolphins, we were escorted to a lagoon to meet the dolphins. Our first activity had Zeus, our first dolphin friend, painting t-shirts for us. We’d hold up a t-shirt and Zeus would paint the shirt by moving his head side to side with a paint brush fixed to his nose. To be honest, it made for some pretty unattractive shirts, although that didn’t stop me from wearing it for the next two days straight!
After painting, we got to swim out and pet Zeus and his buddy Byron. Then one by one, Zeus and Byron took us on a tandem dorsal fin ride. Each ride was pretty short but exhilarating. Throughout the day we also played with Simo and her four-month-old baby, Kai, along with a few other dolphins in the lagoon. We pet and fed them in exchange for being “escorted” by them in various configurations (foot push, belly ride, etc.). The trainers even arranged a scuba diving activity where we descended underwater to hear the dolphins’ noises and interact them in their natural medium.
My favorite activity was the foot push. It was so exciting to feel the dolphin’s nose in my foot and be propelled faster than I could ever swim myself. I envy the dolphin trainers who get to jump, play and learn from them every day. I’m sure it’s exhausting, but I bet it’s so fun.
There were admittedly a few less-than-ideal moments during the day. First, we all got really cold. The sun would play hide and seek behind the clouds, and we were shivering half the time, despite all leaving with a nasty sunburn. (Sunscreen isn’t allowed due to the chemicals it leaks into the water.) Our interactions were also very controlled due to the dolphins’ strict training regimen; for example we were asked not to touch the babies. I had to wheedle my way into being allowed to feed a fish to one of the dolphins. When I finally got the chance, I, in an act of defiance, surreptitiously fed him TWO fish instead of the ONE we were asked to feed (while the trainer gave him 10 in one mouthful!). No dolphins were hurt during my rebellion.
At the end of the day, Valerie, the head trainer, asked Jonathan and me to help her with one last exercise. It was at this moment that I knew Jonathan was going to propose.
How did I know? Throughout the entire day, Jonathan and I moved around in a foursome with a mother and son from Sweden who also purchased the same activity package. The woman was quite obviously a dolphin lover, ooh-ing and aah-ing at every interaction. When Valerie asked us to help her, she explained the absence of the Swedish pair by saying that they didn’t want to do it, but I knew this wasn’t true. Jonathan had also started acting kind of funny. He had been perfectly normal the entire day, but as soon as Valerie said that, he fakely said, “Oohh I wonder what this is.” I have a sixth sense for Jonathan’s lies and deduced the situation immediately.
Still, I didn’t want to spoil the surprise, and I didn’t know exactly how he was going to do it. (I even had no idea that he was going to propose during this trip; we had agreed to get engaged by September so I thought he might propose later this year). Therefore I played along and pretended not to notice when I saw him fumbling around for the ring. Valerie introduced us to Balam and we took a few pictures with him and gave him the signals to jump. Finally, she told me that Balam had a gift for me and signaled for him to come over with the colorful tub.
Balam swam right up to us and gave me the container. I opened it to discover a series of foam alphabet letters strung together to form words. I pulled out each word, one-by-one, spelling in perfect sequence: “Joanna–will–you–marry–me?” Jonathan knelt down on one knee, looked me in the eyes with a smile, and said, “Today you were a dolphin trainer for a day and now I’m asking you to be Jonathan trainer for life. Will you marry me?” I laughed and exclaimed, “Of course!” We kissed and embraced. Right then, Balam and the other dolphins started jumping into the air, and we turned to watch them celebrate this perfect moment with us.
November 12, 2014 § Leave a comment
It’s been two days since I’ve returned from Ghana and it’s been a struggle for me to answer that question meaningfully, accurately, and within the socially accepted time constraints of an open ended question like that.
My default answer has been to say something along the lines of, “It was amazing,” and then gauge the person’s interest. If they continue to look at me expectantly then I will elaborate with details about the work I did, a funny anecdote about an incident on the trip, and one or two insights that I think that specific person will be interested in.
But that approach is still somewhat dissatisfying so I’ve decided to blog at length (but with structure so you can pick and choose the sections interesting to you!) and simply send this to people. I leave the decision to read up to them as well as any follow up questions.
So, how was my trip you ask? Let me answer with answers to a series of related and more specific questions.
How does it feel to be back?
It still feels a bit surreal, but in a good way. Removing myself from my life as I knew it for 3.5 weeks has resulted in a renewed sense of purpose, clarity on what I want in terms of my career and an incredible sense of gratitude for everything I have in my life. I need to be careful about how I express my gratitude though because I’m sure the wide-eyed amazement at the plethora of snacks at work and my glee at having a clean bathroom with running water will get old to my colleagues quite soon. But regardless of how I express it, I will still feel it inside and hopefully continue to appreciate how lucky I am long after the sheen of the trip has faded.
What was the best part of the trip?
This is a hard one because there were so many great things about the trip and I’m sure each of the sixteen attendees will say something different and equally compelling. However for me, the best thing was the isolation from distractions which in turn allowed me to hyper-focus on a few core objectives: projects, people and personal development. I feel really good about the impact we had on our organization and the relationships that I developed along the way. I also achieved my personal goals of reading more (Smartcuts, Priceonomics blog, Wikipedia, etc.), challenging myself to think harder and dig deeper into questions that popped up in my head (e.g. Why is there so much trash?), meditating frequently, and carving out time to exercise.
What was the worst part of the trip?
The high temperatures and intermittent lack of electricity and running water were probably the worst things about the trip. After being in the sweltering heat all day, it’s a little soul crushing to come back home to realize that there’s no water and power. It didn’t happen too often though so I suppose in a way I appreciate it because it made showering that much more exciting and made me not take anything for granted.
What did I do in Ghana?
I mainly worked with an organization called CRRECENT on their marketing strategy and execution. The deliverables included a redesigned website built on responsive design principles (via an easy to edit platform called Wix), a marketing toolkit that included brochures, letterhead, presentation templates, photos and videos, and trainings on Google apps, social media, and design. My team also started an Indiegogo campaign for the organization. There are so many worthy causes, all of which are important, so our ask is to donate a small amount and spread the word so that our collective pool of money can add up to the $2K goal. Google also just announced a 2:1 gift match campaign to help fight ebola that you should check out.
I also worked with kids, teaching them about computers and technology. I tried to focus on how to find the answers to their questions using the Internet versus having them memorize terms. I taught lessons like how to write a good search query, how to create a newsletter and how to create an email address and send an email. It was a huge challenge keeping 20 kids engaged with only one computer, a language barrier and lots of hormones (theirs, not mine) flying around but hopefully they learned something.
That’s my trip in a nutshell! To conclude, I’ll leave you with a few choice stories.
- Point and laugh – Whenever kids saw me they would point and say, “abroni,” which means white man in Twi. One of our drivers, Ben, gave me the advice to point right back at them and say, “obibini,” or brown man. Whenever I did that, the children would collapse in peals of laughter.
- “Free range” livestock – The goats and chicken in Ghana are much more independent and self sufficient than their counterparts in America. Goats and chickens roam the villages and roads, untethered, and forage for food during the day and return to their homes at night. Goat and chicken theft is very uncommon and I saw no road kill in my time there.
- Moldy chain – We didn’t have running water at our partner non-profit’s office so every time we went to the bathroom we had to pour water into the back of the toilet with a bucket and manually pull the chain to flush the toilet. One day, I reached into the dirty water in the back of the tank only to discover that what I thought was the metal chain was a string of mold. I used a lot of hand sanitizer that day.
December 27, 2013 § Leave a comment
I just got back from a jam-packed week in Bali and wanted to document my experiences in a useful format so that I can refer future Bali travelers to this post. Be warned that it will be lengthy but hopefully the insights are worth it and I’ll try to make it as colorful as possible.
Before I delve into the main categories (accommodations, transportation, excursions, and food), I wanted to describe the motely crew of characters I traveled with to give context to the names I will be dropping in my stories.
Cast of Characters
- Debbie: My good college friend who is living and working in Singapore. She enticed me to come visit with her extremely persuasive and winning personality and was the planner extraordinaire behind this vacation. The rest of us just threw out things we wanted to do and Debbie did the research in terms of logistics and pricing and put together a comprehensive itinerary that allowed us to enjoy Bali to the fullest. If you need more information on any of the excursions let me know and I’ll connect you with her as she has spreadsheets full of information.
- Xavier: Debbie’s boyfriend of three years who also lives and works in Singapore. He was an actor and deejay back in the day (in Singapore) and I’ve been told that you can see his famous mug on a random vending machine in Chinatown. If you want any pictures of the food we ate, let me know and I’ll get them from him as he documented everything on Foursquare.
- Tuan: Debbie and Xavier’s klutzy friend from Singapore (poor guy slipped at least ten times during our trip but in his defense it was raining and very wet). I think Debbie expected us to get along because he also works for Google (out of the Singapore office). Tuan was often the butt of our jokes during the trip and we grew a rapport similar to that of siblings around the same age.
- Mykola: Debbie’s Ukrainan born coworker who moved to Minnesota at age fifteen. He regaled us with stories of hog butchering in his village in Ukraine (I now have a strong desire to try salted lard) and impressed us with the fact that his grandmother owned a quarter of the goat population in that same village (there were four goats in the village). It was hilarious as he, this six foot tall, blond, bear of a man, was our de facto tour guide as he had been to Bali three times before and was familiar with most of the areas we were going to. Mykola was extremely chill about everything and balanced the group out very nicely.
I won’t be much help here as our group had fairly unique lodging arrangements. Debbie and Xavier’s have a friend who used to live in Bali with his family and own a five bedroom villa in Pecatu. It was gorgeous and modern as the wife is an interior designer and we were so dazzled by it on our first night. However, we soon discovered that beautiful outdoor living spaces meant that we were also sharing the areas with multitudes of bugs. It was also a bit far from some of the places we went to which meant more time in a car, sometimes sitting in traffic, but it was a small sacrifice to be staying in such a beautiful place.
The going rate for a driver is about $35 USD or 400,000 Rupiah. If you acquire a driver at the airport, it will be about double that rate unless you haggle. I recommend setting up a driver to take you around in advance. For each excursion, Debbie arranged with the facility to include a driver for the day. However, feel free to hit up my new friend Agung (firstname.lastname@example.org or 081-338-383-554). His English is a bit broken but he is extremely nice and knows where all the main spots are.
I’m going to list the excursions in the order of most enjoyment to lowest enjoyment, per my standards. Keep in mind that I’m an adrenaline junkie who loves animals but I’ll give additional context so you can get a sense of whether or not you would enjoy this type of activity.
- Canyoning: I LOVED this experience. My friend who had traveled to Bali just a few months prior told me about this and it sounded like something right up my alley. We essentially climbed up and down rain forests and rappelled down waterfalls. Sometimes we jumped into pools of water, other times we slid down rocks. I suppose this can be considered a dangerous activity but if you pay attention and watch where you put your feet, you should be fine. We originally were going to do the Double K Sporty package but it was too dangerous that day due to the rain so we did Kerenkali instead. Our guide, Pee-E said that the Aling Gorges (only available from July to November) route is absolutely gorgeous so I plan to one day come back to do that. For our group of five we had two guides (Pee-E and Iman) and they led us though the various obstacles. Afterwards we had lunch together at a small shop in the area and they transferred the pictures they took of us with their GoPro to our SD cards (if you don’t have a SD card they will burn it on a CD for you). Mykola also had a GoPro with him so we have a pretty cool video of him jumping off a waterfall (complete with water immersion). The scenery was breathtakingly beautiful and I often felt like I was in Rivendell.
- Surfing: I grew up in Socal but for whatever reason, never learned to surf. This was my second most anticipated outing and it did not disappoint. Debbie, Tuan, and I went to Padang Padang beach and approached the lifeguard tent, asking if they gave surf lessons. They had some guys and boards available for roughly $25 USD for a 1 hour lesson which seemed like a pretty good deal to me (I had no real point of reference but it seemed a small price to pay for being able to paddle out into the warm, crystal clear water. My instructor, Wayan, was a burly Balinese man covered in tattoos. I really liked him and thought that he did a fine job of teaching me and pushing me onto the waves but I know that Debbie and Tuan (both have surfed before), were not happy with the quality of their instructor. There definitely was a language barrier but who wants to listen to someone talk when you can be paddling out to sea? I stood up on a few good waves with Wayan’s help but when I tried to paddle through and stand up myself, wasn’t able to find the right rhythm. We only went for an hour on our last day in Bali but it was a glorious experience nonetheless.
- White water rafting: I wasn’t originally looking forward to this excursion because of my injuries (to be described in Gili Islands section) but within ten minutes of being on the river, I couldn’t help but feel so lucky that I got to raft down such majestic views. I’ve gone white water rafting in various other places, most recently the American River near Sacramento, but those views don’t even compare to what you can see in Bali. Our group had two boats with one guide each (Wayan and Rambo) and we had fun battling each other for the lead. I was seated next to klutzy Tuan and within minutes of me telling him to be careful and threatening to hurt him if he hit my face with his paddle, he promptly clocked me in the head. Luckily the helmet protected me but let’s just say that I was just as vigilant about his whereabouts as I was about the rocks in the river.
- Ubud Bike tour: Despite the muddy roads and random trash littered along the trails, I enjoyed the biking tour through Ubud because I felt like I was getting to see how people really lived in Bali. Arga, our guide, took us past his grandfather’s house and we got to ride through rice paddies with men and women planting and harvesting the crops. I was surprised to see that everything was still done manually as more advanced machinery in other industries was prevalent in other parts of Bali but it was fun to interact with the kids and explore the neighborhood.
- Uluwatu Temple: This temple boasts cliff side views that rival even the newest round of HD screensavers. If you come here, bring some bananas or fruit to feed the monkeys (you can also buy some there but it’s overpriced due to the high density of tourists). The monkeys are cute but aggressive so just be careful. I offered a monkey a piece of fruit and he took his tiny little hand, grabbed it, took a little bite, threw it on the ground, and then jumped up and grabbed the entire bag from my other hand. It was amusing to watch him strut around afterwards, popping fruit in his mouth from the bag as if he were at the movies, eating some popcorn. I considered stealing the bag of fruit back but my friends told me that he would probably bite me so I just let him have it.
- Massage: In central Ubud you will walk down the street and see a bevy of boutique shops and spas. Our group really enjoyed our experience at Kayma spa as it had a nice ambiance and talented staff. The prices are ridiculously low compared to US standards so it’s worth going if you like getting pampered once in a while. I tried the Volcanic wrap (combination of bath salts and volcanic ash which is supposed to relax your muscles and purify your skin) but I wouldn’t recommend as I was super itchy when they bundled me up like a burrito and left me to dry. My friends highly recommend the traditional Balinese massage.
- Gili Islands: Oh Gili. I had a lot of bad luck on Gili. The Gili Islands are located off the coast of Bali and take about 2.5 hours via boat. During this leg of our trip I got stung by jellyfish, cut my feet on coral reefs, was eaten alive by mosquitos, and got extremely seasick. Of the three Gili islands, I only went to Gili Trawangan. Snorkeling was fun at first until the jellyfish started to sting me. I recommend wearing a rash guard if you go. Also, don’t expect any instruction – you essentially pay for just the equipment and a boat ride out. Mykola went scuba diving and had a good time. He said that he saw the biggest sea turtle he’s ever seen which is a significant statement as he has been diving many times before.
- Outlet shopping: There are stores that sell clothes (mostly surfing brands like Billabong, Hurley, etc.). Enough said.
We didn’t have time to do everything on our list so here are a few things/places we wanted to visit but couldn’t do.
- Cooking class (multiple options)
- ATV and horse back riding
- Rock bar (located within the Ayana resort)
- Potato Head Beach Club
I didn’t do a good job of paying attention to all the places we ate at but here are a few of my favorites. I’m not a picky eater though so I enjoyed everything I had (including the local Indonesian instant noodle).
- Fish market: This was my favorite dining experience as it was the most interesting. Essentially you walk around the fish market, choose the type of seafood you want to eat, and then take it to a nearby restaurant to grill. It’s not the cleanest environment though so keep your hygiene expectations low. Our group got some squid, octopus, tiger prawns, and sea bass. Tuan also got 3 kilos of some other fish I can’t remember the name of. Tip: Don’t get 3 kilos of a fish with that order unless you’re rreealllyy hungry.
- Bebek Bengil: This restaurant serves a famous crispy duck dish that was delicious. The portions could be bigger and it’s pricey compared to other more traditional restaurants but the ambiance is nice and they have an interesting menu.
- Naughty Nuris: The food was good but the entire time I was eating I kept on wondering who Nuri was and why she was so naughty. My friends thought their ribs were the best they’d ever had but I can’t agree with that statement having eaten at Ribfest. The ribs were really solid though and their pork loin was also quite good.
Hopefully this list is somewhat helpful for you future adventurers. I left off a few things here and there so feel free to reach out to me in person if you want more information. Bali is wonderful and I highly recommend it. If you’re awesome enough maybe I’ll go back with you. 🙂
June 14, 2013 § Leave a comment
This past weekend I went to my friend’s wedding in Sonoma. It was the first wedding where I was in the bridal party and probably the only wedding I will serve as a groomsmaid.
When the bride and groom e-mailed the bridal party a few weeks ago, asking who wanted to give a toast, I considered raising my hand but I couldn’t think of anything to say. It had been so long since we had lived together in the dorms and I didn’t even remember what it was like to know the bride and groom apart.
However, listening to the other toasts during the wedding made me reflect upon my relationship with the couple, and more specifically, my friend, Tim. Therefore, I know it’s late but here’s the toast I would have given if I could do it all over again.
For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Joanna and I am Tim’s, self-proclaimed, Best Woman.
Tim and I met eight years ago when we were freshmen at Cal. We lived on the same floor in the dorms and were somewhat forced to get to know each other through floor dinners and meet and greets but it wasn’t until we had our first one on one conversation that I started to think that we would be good friends.
I still remember that conversation vividly. I was sitting on my bed in my dorm and he sat on a chair in front of me. We started with the usual perfunctory questions like, “Where are you from” and “What do you want to major in” but quickly went on to things like, “What do you want in life” and “What is your view on relationships.”
I liked Tim right away because he was honest and thoughtful and was comfortable with who he was. He had no qualms about telling me about the challenges of moving around as a child, growing up in China, and the fact that he had never dated anyone prior to college. We had a lot of similarities and clicked in our worldviews so I was hopeful that he would be a good friend to me in college.
Throughout the years I’ve seen many sides of Tim but my view of Brittany was skewed at first. Because Tim and I are so similar, it was hard to understand her point of view when they would get into disagreements and for the longest time I had trouble relating to her. However, slowly but surely I got to see the entire picture and I was able to see Brittany for who she really is, a kind, generous, and loving person who would sacrifice everything for someone she loves.
Actually, now that I think about it, I’m probably one of the few people who can best empathize with Brittany in her grievances with Tim. Tim and I were swing dance partners in college and although it was a wonderful experience, it definitely had its ups and downs. Similar to how Tim approached his relationship with Brittany, he always had the best intentions but somehow those intentions didn’t always materialize.
To give you an example, one time Tim and I were practicing a lift when he forgot to lift before flipping me and ended up giving me a head concussion. Obviously not intentional but very painful to say the least. I really should have logged all those injuries to get credit for free medical advice but to be fair, we didn’t know he would become a doctor back then.
There were so many things we didn’t know back then. In that very first conversation that we had, Tim and I had yet to really discover who we were and what we wanted in our careers but we were both certain of one thing: we both wanted to find that perfect partner in college and hopefully marry that person. The rationale was that we didn’t want to date just to date and would only get into a relationship if we could see a long-term future with that person. At least that was the dream.
It’s always beautiful when a dream is realized. As we grow older, it’s so common to see dreams deferred by the realities of adult life. Yet here we are, eight years later, and Tim is marrying his college sweetheart.
To Tim and Brittany, may your future children be blessed with your insane bodies and kind hearts. I promise to visit you in New York at least once and I wish you all the happiness in the world. Cheers.