Thursday, June 21, 2018

Micronesia and the Marshall Islands

A diving dream of mine came true way earlier than expected in Nov 2016.  Anyone serious about scuba diving will have heard of the wreck diving in Truk (now known as Chuuk) in Micronesia.
Despite being a group of tropical islands in the middle of the pacific, Micronesia has very little tourism to speak of.  It is difficult and very expensive to get to and has surprisingly little infrastructure or economy, tourism or otherwise.  There are 4 states in Micronesia, comprising the 4 biggest island groups but they are pretty small and widely flung across the pacific.  Chuuk is one of these.
Pretty much the only commercial option to the islands is via United airlines on their island hopper service which hops from Hawaii to Guam and back a couple times a week stopping in multiple parts of Micronesia and the Marshall Islands.  With a monopoly on the flights, prices are brutal so my strategy was always to accumulate enough points on airline miles to get there on a reward flight.  I expected it to be a very long project but through a couple of credit card bonuses and a creative use of all the options, I was able to make it happen.
My strategy ended up being to catch a cheap flight to Asia (anywhere would do, but Manila worked out best) from where I would get a return rewards flight to the Marshall Islands with a stopover in Truk, Micronesia along the way.  This roundabout route cost fewer than half the points needed for the trip from north america and still saved me thousands of dollars on the flights.
Sasha wouldn't be going because of the cost and she is not a scuba diver so I talked Bre into going.  Bre's always up for anything adventurous, even if she has no idea what is going on.  She has only a little experience and a scuba license so she was like a baby in these waters and was quickly adopted by everyone else.  By far the majority of divers showing up at Chuuk have hundreds if not thousands of dives under their belt and even I at 200 felt like a newbie there. I think many of them were quite jealous that Bre got to dive "the dream" so quickly.
Chuuk is a lagoon.  The view from the air coming in is nothing short of stunning  with the outline of the lagoon and a handful of small islands and crystal clear water.  During WW2 the Japanese used it as a forward naval base for their pacific fleet and it was for a time their largest base outside of Japan.  In 1944 the Americans attacked Chuuk and in a 3-day aerial bombardment, essentially destroyed the Japanese garrison and sunk dozens of Japanese ships and a huge number of aircraft.  To this day it is considered the best concentration of wreck dives in the world and though they are very well preserved and very accessible, many are starting to disintegrate after 70 years underwater.

One of many amazing views coming into Chuuk
Not the best initial impression in Chuuk

Much better looking at the resort

We stayed in Chuuk for a week and dove 3 times a day each day which is pretty standard.  There are only 2 resorts on Chuuk and both cater to divers.  Blue Lagoon Resort, where we were, is by far the biggest and most organized, though still quite small.  After WW2, Micronesia became a US colony until the 80's and it is obvious nothing has been rebuilt or maintained.  The streets are in terrible shape and the homes, buildings and cars look like they just finished the war.  I don't say this to be mean to but illustrate that aside from diving, nobody goes there because there is nothing else to do and it isn't considered particularly safe either. It took us 30 minutes just to drive the couple of km from the airport to the resort, not because of traffic but because of the size of the potholes...
The resorts are small and pretty basic but well set up for people who just want to dive and dive some more.  There are also a couple liveaboards that operate in the area but I don't really see the point when the resort good enough and the sites are so close.
Of our dives, only 1 was a repeat dive onto the same ship (though a different part of it) so there is plenty of stuff to see giving great revisit value.  Our typical day was get up, have breakfast, dive, rest on a different island beach or maybe go back to the resort (dive sites were anywhere from 10-30 minutes away), dive again, have lunch, dive again, come back to relax and socialise with the other guests.  It wasn't the busiest season so there weren't many of us overall , maybe a dozen at the resort at most, and our little dive group was typically 5-6 of us and our guide. Flight days were the busiest because guests would typically stay for a night between flights and the liveaboard arrival/departure.  But when the total annual tourist numbers are only a few thousand, you don't worry about crowds :)

Relaxing at our resort

We had it all to ourselves

Dives were generally pretty short because of the depths involved.  The amazing thing is that because these ships were sunk in battle there is not only damage to the ships but the material inside is still intact too.  I had done some great WW2 wreck dives previously in Coron, Philippines (still recommended) but because this is in a lagoon, the better visibility and general lack of current made it so much nicer.  With the only real difficulty being the depths, and with such a variety of sites to choose from, a relatively new diver can still have a great experience. 
We dove a destroyer and on an airplane, but most of the ships were transport ships with cargo holds full of anything from medical supplies to bullets and aircraft parts.  On the deck of one there were still jeeps and a tank.  Amazing! Most dives involved some small penetrations into the hold or along hallways.  It's always a little disorienting swimming sideways down a hallway of a ship laying on its side.  Once we were all feeling confident, on the last day we did a penetration into the pitch black engine rooms at 45m down.  Not going to lie, that freaked me out.  The shallower dives have more coral growth and fish and are decaying faster as a result.  I'd love to go back and do more as there was still a lot we didn't see.
The dive boats await

Bre is ready




The week there went by quickly and we made some good friends.  We then jumped back on the island hopper flight to get to Majuro, 4 stops down the line.  The flight, in a 737, takes around an hour between stops and then stops for 30-45 minutes before continuing.  Luckily we were often allowed to get out and of course the islands themselves looked amazing from the air.  The exception was at Kwajalein, a US military base and missile testing facility and probably the only stop on the flight route that keeps it in business.
If you've heard of the nuclear testing done at bikini atoll, that's a remote part of the Marshall Islands.  Like Micronesia, the Marshalls became a US colony after WW2, gaining independence at the same time.  They are still heavily influenced (or dictated to) by US foreign policy and the presence of the military base there. Both countries still us the US dollar and are still basically entirely dependent on the US economically.  Overall the Marshall Islands probably gets more visitors but not tourists. The only other foreigners we met were either military contractors on their way to Kwajalein for work, or guys sailing across the pacific.
Unlike Micronesia which is mountainous and green, the Marshall Islands are totally flat, sandy coral atolls surrounding their lagoons.  Apart from landing on Kwajalein, we only stayed on Majuro, the capital. The land part that people live on is a long strip about 50km long that doesn't quite make a half circle around the lagoon and in many places is no wider than the distance you could throw a frisbee.  They somehow managed to find a straight enough stretch of land to put the runway for an airport, though the runway and the road going beside it took the entire width of the land available.
For the most part there is only one long street and no traffic lights at all, with everything build on either side.  One side faces the calm lagoon waters and the other faces the open ocean.  The widest part at one end is where most of the "city" is built, though it is all very basic homes and shops.  I can't speak for the rest of Micronesia but Majuro seemed a little more developed and organized than Chuuk.  Like Micronesia, there are only a couple small hotels and guesthouses.
Because of the way the flights worked out we had to stay 4 days but got lucky in staying at the only airbnb place on the island, a small apartment made out of shipping containers.  There really wasn't much to do but wander along the road at our end of town and stare out to sea when we could get to the water or poke our heads into the little shops.  Surprisingly there was very little beach area and almost nowhere to just sit out and relax.  We also found a lot of litter accumulating in the few free spaces around. As expected in such a remote place, their selection of fresh produce was very depressing and prices heavily inflated.

Not much space to live on
Our Airbnb
Wandering the streets of Majuro

Looking into the calm lagoon

Looking out to sea


One day we took a public minivan to the far end of the road where we found a smaller community and the only real beach and park area on the island at Laura.  It was pretty much deserted so we splashed around in the shallow water and watched the tide come in.  At low tide it looks like you could actually walk to the other small islands dotting around the other half of the lagoon as the perimeter is quite shallow in most places with just a few channels to allow for shipping.  It was funny to see posters of diving at the airport and on the country tourism website and yet it was almost impossible to find any.  The water is supposed to be great and I would've liked to give it a try.  When I finally tracked down the only dive operator in town it turned out it was closed because the one guy that ran it was on holidays in the US for a month!  We also kept coming across nuclear compensation advertisements for people suffering from the testing on bikini... People were friendly enough though and we didn't run into any problems.

Perfect water

Finally found a beach at Laura

There are small planes flying to further outlying island chains but without a lot more time and money it just isn't going to happen.  There may be some possibility of finding someone with a boat to take you to other parts of the lagoon on a day trip but we didn't bother with that either. Overall a great trip but definitely a specialized one, not for the casual traveller.
Ammon

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Andalusia 2

From Ronda we continued to the coast at Algeciras.  Algeciras is not a tourist destination in it's own right.  Most people come just to take a ferry to Morocco, or as in our case, use it as a base to visit Gibraltar.
Gibraltar is of course best known for it's gigantic rock and for the fact that Europe's only wild monkeys that live on it.  It is also a British military base that has frustrated Spain to no end since they lost it about 300 years ago.
The rock is easily visible from across the bay in Algeciras and a quick bus ride and a walk across the border had us there in about an hour.  As the only border between Spain and the UK, Sasha was excited to have a foot in each of her heritages at the same time.  Right after crossing the border we had to walk across the runway of the small Gibraltar airport.  There is a road that cuts across the middle of the runway and anytime a flight is due they have to close the road and sweep the runway before a plane can land or depart.  This got me very excited of course and during our day there were were able to watch this process a couple times.
The small town of Gibraltar is a typical tourist-trap kind of town and it is strange to see Spanish people eating fish and chips and speaking with British accents.  We took the cable car up to the top of the rock, watched everyone get attacked by the monkeys which are waiting at the top, enjoyed the views and slowly walked back down.  There are a few structures along the way, mostly related to military fortifications, but for the most part it was just an enjoyable stroll.

Crossing the runway!

Gibraltar town

The monkeys attack as soon as you arrive at the top!


Old fortifications at the top.



Gibraltar below and Spain across the bay.

Our next stop was Cadiz.  Easily the least visited city of our stops in Andalusia but I ended up liking it a lot.  I wanted to visit it for its historically significance.  It is one of the oldest cities in Europe, perhaps the oldest continuously inhabited one in western europe, as it was first settled by the Phoenicians.  It was later Carthaginian, Roman, Visigoth, Byzantine, Moorish and Spanish.  As a port city, it was sacked many times by pirates and the British, was the starting point for many exploratory sea voyages including some by Columbus, and eventually became the home of the Spanish treasure fleet. One of the unique architectural features of Cadiz was its towers, built by wealthy merchant families as lookouts for returning ships. Most of the dozens of towers are long gone, but there is at least one left that can be visited.
While there aren't many single big attractions, the old town on its peninsula has a great atmosphere, lots of little ruins, fortresses and sea views scattered about and some nice old buildings, plazas and narrow streets.  It is also largely free of the tourist hassle of the other towns nearby.  If I had had the time I would've been tempted to just relax there a little longer.

Cadiz

Narrow streets but pretty buildings.



One of the little forts protecting Cadiz.

Our final stop in Andalusia was Seville.  Wow what a city.  Ridiculously busy with tourists but justifiably so as it is a beautiful historic city as well.  Before Cadiz, this is where all the trade came and went from to the Spanish colonies so the wealth generated resulted in some magnificent buildings and one of the largest cathedrals in the world.  The decor inside is very impressive and contains the tomb of Columbus.
We ran around like crazy trying to see as much as we could but at least a few days would be needed to do justice to it all.  As the largest city and capital of Andalusia it continues to grow and get more modern architectural projects as well but the older part is great combining wide avenues and ornate architecture with the smaller more cramped neighbourhoods as seen elsewhere.  One of the more interesting areas to explore was the grounds of the expo held in 1929 at the Plaza de Espana and the surrounding park.  It's a very beautiful and romantic area for a stroll.

Wide streets in Seville


Outside the Cathedral

Wow

Tomb of Christopher Columbus


Plaza de Espana.

I found Cervantes

From Seville we had a long bus ride back to Valencia for our flight home.
Ammon

Friday, June 01, 2018

Andalusia

The Alhambra was once described to me as the most beautiful structure in all of Europe.  This is too complicated a statement for me to agree completely but it is certainly in the top 10.  I love the Moorish architectural style that is found all over southern Spain's Andalusia region.  Parts of the south were Moorish for about 700 years so their cultural stamp and influence still run deep.  With only 8 days to visit the area we had to move quickly.
In pre-planning routes and places to see we decided to stick to public transit and the most useful guidebook turned out to be Rick Steves Spain.  Pre-booking accommodation (we used a combination of airbnb, couchsurfing and cheap hotels) and especially transport saved us a ton.  Early May was a perfect time to go as it was bright and sunny but not too hot (low 20's) and tourist crowds not quite at their peak yet though it was starting to get busy in the more popular spots.
It made sense for us to start in Granada.  What an introduction to the region.  Granada is home to the Alhambra, the palace built by the Moors in their final capital in Spain and the royal court of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 when they finished the reconquest of Spain.  It was here that Christopher Columbus received their support as well.  I love tying in the pieces of history and connecting places and events from one side of the world to another so this was a big moment for me.  One of the major "dots" if you will and a must-do pilgrimage for anyone interested in world history.
Whatever their reason, there are a lot of visitors to Granada now so it is mandatory to pre-book tickets and reserve an entry time to enter the Alhambra. The complex is beautiful, ornate and crowded with great views over the old town but I think our favourite part was walking through its gardens on such a perfect day.  Well worth the half day we spent there.  The rest of old town Granada is nice though a little grungy in places.  There are some nice lookouts with some perfect views of the Alhambra and nearby snow-capped mountains.

At the Alhambra
Granada cathedral
Alhambra gardens



Alhambra

Old town Granada


After 2 nights in Granada we went up to Cordoba.  When the Moors were at their peak influence and control over nearly the entire Iberian peninsula about 1000 years ago, Cordoba was the capital.  At a time when the rest of Europe was struggling through a lot of medieval nonsense, Cordoba was one of (if not the) most tolerant, intellectual and progressive cities of the world.  It has since become just a small regional capital but is packed with historical sites, including Roman and Moorish ruins, a Jewish neighbourhood of tiny winding streets and one of the most unique religious structures I've seen, the Mezquita.
Built on top of old Christian churches (still seen below the floor), the Mezquita was a low-roofed mosque known for it's many pillars and striped arches.  When the Spanish took over in the 1200's they converted it into a church and built a towering cathedral right in the middle of the mosque.  It is very strange in that the mosque part is still very large and you feel like you are accidentally discovering a hidden cathedral of a completely different style and atmosphere in the middle. Like the intimacy of wandering in the woods at dusk and stumbling into a clearing and finding a bright, imposing tower looming above you.

In the Mezquita

The cathedral in the Mezquita

In addition to a quick visit to the Mezquita, we wandered through the old town, saw it's plazas, the remnants of the city walls, some Roman ruins and the old Roman bridge before calling it a day.

Cordoba lunch

Old Cordoba

Old city walls

Old Roman bridge

The following morning we took the train to Ronda, a small city with a fantastic location on the edge of a cliff with amazing views.  They city is small and easily walkable and definitely worth a quick visit.  We stopped for a few hours on our way to Algeciras.   There are so many viewpoints to stop at and gawk at the homes built right on the edge with the balconies literally hanging over the side.  There is a beautiful view of the bridge to the old town from below and the trail down to see it is a must do.  Within Spain, Ronda is probably most famous for its contributions to the culture of bullfighting so there is a bullfighting ring and museum and a handful of statues around tow but we were content with just strolling and taking in the view.


Old Ronda


Plaza in old Ronda
Ammon