Blink of an Eye

I can’t believe it’s September already. Time really does fly with the blink of an eye.

The last month has been a little of a whirlwind, with a quick exit out of Vietnam to see family and then back to Vietnam and starting three weeks of travel. Back to it!

We first made our way towards the South of Vietnam, I’m glad I made time to finally do so since I didn’t really get to whilst I was working at Asia Outdoors. We did an overnight train to Hue, biked from there to Hoi An, flew from Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh city and then bussed from HCM to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. The bike route from Hue to Hoi An was definitely one of the highlights with some really cheap options to get there. 450,000 VND (~£15) for bike hire for the one way journey and they transfer any big bags you don’t want to take to your hotel for you. For a day of riding around on a 135cc automatic scooter, it was totally worth it!

Hoi An was definitely very beautiful with all its signature lanterns glowing at night, painting the old streets in a gorgeous soft lighting. It is very touristy though teaming with visitors both western and Asian (there were a lot of Koreans when we were there).

In HCM we took an evening to have dinner and then go to the cinema. It’s the first time I’ve been since travelling and it was really good fun to do a coupley thing that was more familiar territory with both our backgrounds. Mission Possible was an excellent choice for it.

Phnom Penh was largely spent inside as I was ill (how I managed to contract a cold in ~30 degree heat, I’m not sure). We did manage to visit the genocide museum (S21) which was pretty harrowing, I had no idea Cambodia had such a violent, heartbreaking recent history.

Generally the city seemed like a pretty uninspiring sprawl. It definitely wasn’t very pedestrian friendly, particularly around where we stayed. I also nearly got robbed by some guys on a motorbike which was fun. Otherwise, Cambodians seem really nice and friendly.

We are currently in Siem Reap. Yes, we will be going to see the Angkor National Park tomorrow but I can’t believe it’s $37 to get in just for one day. I do really want to go see Beng Mealea too but we won’t have time.

One of the things that’s changed this time travelling is that I’m not longer solely travelling, I am also remote working. It’s bizarre, and it’s definitely taking getting used to but it’s an interesting new lifestyle. I certainly don’t earn enough to sustain a life in London but if I were to stay in SE Asia, it would provide a good amount of income. It is tiring though moving around, travelling and working as well. It’s a lot to juggle to then make sure you make quality time for your boyfriend which is the reason you went on this three week trip in the first place. You gotta do what you gotta do. Hopefully I can get this set up and rolling so that it can sustain me in future.

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The Corner of Lost Souls

I’m sitting on the bus on my way off Cat Ba and out of Vietnam after 90 days in this country. It feels so weird. It’s the longest I’ve spent continuously in any country after UK and HK. I certainly would’ve never envisaged that I would be doing that here and certainly not that long in a small town on a small island. I remember arriving here in May (which feels like a lifetime ago) and thinking “shit, I’m going to spend three months here”?. It’s funny how quickly that seems to have passed.

Usually Asia Outdoors only give out six month contracts, but as luck would have it, through disorganisation of outgoing and incoming hiring people and their needing staff quickly I managed to negotiate a three month contract. I don’t regret my decision to leave after three and I’m glad I didn’t impulsively extend. Some people have been here over a year and I don’t quite understand how. Being here during the progression into rainy season probably doesn’t help much as it has made it such an effort to go climbing on days off. I can’t remember the last time I went to Butterfly Valley on my personal time. Climbing out in the bay is stunning but also expensive as you need to hire boats for the day. And going out DWS with the company on days off is something I didn’t enjoy too much. The fear of falling and jumping into water from high up severely hampers my enjoyment of the activity. So for me, my time here has felt like a time of being lost and trying to experience more, whilst lacking any real direction. And perhaps that’s where I come from so I’m projecting but I see a lot of people in the same boat as me – particularly those who have been here for over six months. The Corner of Lost Souls as I called it in a conversation with one of my past colleagues.

It’s been an interesting social experiment to see how people react to me. The locals and even westerners would often think I was local or could speak the language. Even this morning on my last office shift I had four people try to speak to me in Vietnamese and one westerner ask me if I can ask the Vietnamese staff of the neighbouring tea stand for some ice. It’s often quite amusing, particularly the embarrassment of the westerners sometimes. There would’ve been a time where it particularly bothered me – a time when my sense of identity was more fragile. Nowadays, I can shrug it off pretty easily. Of course I don’t expect you to know that I’m not local, I am Chinese after all.

I have missed long travel times alone like this when I usually default to escaping into my thoughts. There has definitely been a lot of distractions in Cat Ba. But also, the idea of sitting in a room by myself never seemed that appealing and neither did I find anywhere external to the hotel that I felt comfortable enough to relax.

The butterflies here are exquisite. That’s been a pleasant surprise that I’ve really enjoyed. I remember there was a particular week period around the end of May when Butterfly Valley really lived up to its name. I got distracted regularly whilst belaying by the variety and how many butterflies there were. Even now, there are still some beautiful and vibrant ones around.

Halfway Through

If you don’t know where you want to go, then it doesn’t matter which path you take.

– Lewis Carroll

I’m about halfway through my time here on Cat Ba and it has been a quite a ride so far. The work continues to throw up interesting challenges daily and there is continual staffing shifts which changes the dynamic of the group frequently. As July approaches I become more and more acutely aware that a decision on what I want to do after will have to be made soon. A friend/colleague introduced me to the quote above a couple of days ago which really stuck with me. There’s been so much anxiety over picking THE thing I need to be doing next but there’s no grounding for it. I have no aim and no real preference for what I want to do so there’s no need for the anxiety.

Cat Ba is an interesting mix of environments. The town itself is a horrible over packed seaside town which the Vietnamese come to invade during June and July. But going out into Lan Ha Bay for work provides some sort reprieve from the hustle and bustle that is this neon town. It’s a funny lifestyle living here as an adventure guide. Going out onto the bay for work and escaping deep into the island on days off to climb. We work and play as a unit which makes it all very intense, particularly if you strike up a romantic relationship with someone or have a disagreement with another.

I love driving out of Cat Ba Town; I even own a scooter now. My first moving vehicle! Heading out from the busy town onto quieter roads always feels a bit cathartic, especially when you’re turning up the gas so that you pelt along at some speeds.

I’m interested to see what the next half of my time here will bring. If it brings anymore clarity to my future plans, that would be most welcome.

My Temporary Abode

So after being on the road consistently since January, it got to the point where I felt quite tired of moving around. So I’m now on Cat Ba island in Vietnam for a couple of months working here as an Adventure Guide for Asia Outdoors. It’s pretty cool. I would have never imagined myself working outdoors like this in a foreign country. The bay is beautiful although it does make me really sad how much rubbish is floating around. The locals litter a lot as do the big tourist cruise ships which is heartbreaking. The education in Asia really needs to be improved to make the locals aware of how delicate the environment is.

The work is cool, I work with a really good bunch of people who all love the outdoors and are really good fun. The days are long and tiring, it’s proper honest work though which does give you a sense of satisfaction at the end of the day. Cat Ba seemed like a good place as there’s plenty of climbing here to go to do on days off. So far, I haven’t quite had as many sport climbing days as I’d like but I’m hoping that will change.

Deep water solo is also an awesome activity that is on offer here that’s perfect now that we’re heading into the hot and humid summer.

This whole travel adventure has thrown up a lot of questions about what I want from life. It’s caused me a fair amount of stress from not having even a rough plan of what I want to do. But one epiphany I had from climbing the other day is that life is like climbing. As you move through the different foot and hand holds, you’ll come across different options but you won’t know until you get there. It was a nice summary of where I was at. It doesn’t matter if I don’t end up living the cookie cutter lifestyle I always thought I had to live. I don’t want that and it’s in accepting that there are other ways to live that will give me the freedom I’m seeking.

Indonesia: Water, green and wilderness

That will be my memory of Indonesia. In the not-quite three weeks we were there, we ended up splitting the time between Nusa Lembongan, Labuan Bajo/Komodo and Bali. What we saw was beautiful.

Despite being quite touristy in some places, there are still lots of wilderness around, particularly underwater. The diving here is phenomenal and definitely some of the best that I’ve experienced. The variety and size of coral and fish in Komodo was astounding. It was easy to feel dwarfed by the monstrously sized marine creatures swimming in those waters. We were lucky enough to come across a lot of mantas at a dive site called Mawan. These mantas were easily 5m wide and much bigger than the ones we saw at Nusa Penida. They are amazing, just so graceful and calm as they swim playfully past you.

I was a bit sceptical about spending too much time on Bali knowing how popular with tourists it is. We spent a couple of days in Amed, which had a great relaxed pace. It was fun to hire scooters and zip around seeing the beautiful coastal scenery.

Here we also got to see an example of a freediver, Joan Capdevila, in action. Snorkeling at the Japanese Wreck, he manages to dive down and stay to inspect the wreck in detail for three, four minutes at a time with ease. It was mind boggling enough to see that knowing he is managing it all with one single breathe. To then extend that thought to trying to comprehend his deep dives to the depths of 70/80m is something my brain instinctively shuts down. It’s amazing what human beings can achieve and it’s another stark reminder that our biggest limitations are the mental walls which we box ourselves into. I doubt that freediving is something that I will be pursuing obsessively any time soon, but the learnings are just as applicable to my love of climbing.

After Amed, I spent our last few days in Canggu. Going from sleepy Amed to Canggu was a bit overwhelming initially. The traffic for one, is much more intense. But Canggu is pretty cool. Kind of like Hipsters on Holiday vibes. Surfers and skaters revel here as do digital nomads. The main streets are decorated with shiny shops, shiny cafes and shiny signs. As much I liked the pseudo westernised environment to soothe my cravings for home comforts, the place still has too much of a sheen for me to feel completely comfortable. It was also nice to see the rice paddies that still existed just off the main streets, but also sobering to consider that they will probably no longer exist in a decade or so to make way for more perfectly curated shops and cafes.

Indonesia has been an interesting experience. Personally, it threw up a lot of questions about what I want to do with my life, particularly after I call it quits with travelling (the number one reason why anyone travels right?). But the country is beautiful, and I would love to revisit to explore more.

Indonesia So Far: Lembongan, Bali

It’s been an eventful week and a bit since we arrived in Indonesia. When we first arrived, I have to admit I really wasn’t sure whether I’d enjoy my time here. The idea of being somewhere where it was the Australia’s answer to Benidorm really didn’t seem appealing to me. I also wasn’t quite ready to be back amongst the normal holidaymakers having been amongst climbers for nearly a month.

We stayed in Sanur for two nights whilst we waited for my dad to join us for a week. Unless you are heading to catch a ferry, I would avoid Sanur. There’s nothing outstanding about it and it’s festering with locals who pester you to offer their services. Once we landed on Nusa Lembongan, it got much better with the island providing a much more relaxed atmosphere. We originally booked for four nights and ended up staying seven as Ed wanted to do his advanced course as well as his open water. The island (and the neighbouring two islands) are beautiful and are so good for watersports. If you like diving, surfing or just beaches under a blazing sun, this is the place to go.

The islands are stunning, I would highly recommend renting a scooter to explore the island as well as crossing over to the smaller but no less spectacular Cennigan. Although I would not recommend what my dad did which is drive his scooter off the edge of a 2.5m drop… If you do have any mishaps, the East Medical Centre on Lembongan is very good. The treatment rooms are clean, they have good equipment and it’s sterile. Luckily my dad only escaped with scrapes and the need for a couple of stitches for a particularly bad cut. Do take care! Some of the roads on Cennigan are particularly steep and in bad condition and certainly not for the faint-hearted.

Having already done my Advanced PADI, I spent my days mainly surfing and doing admin bits. I’m a complete noob at surfing so it was quite amusing to take on the beginner surf lessons with Thabu Surfing and get absolutely spanked by the waves. The lessons were really good and in my last session I could stand up on most of the waves I caught. At 450k IDR a lesson it’s almost worth doing the lesson just to catch Thabu and his instructors catch waves themselves. The names for the surf spots did make me chuckle though, they were Razors, Lacerations and Playground with the last one being the least friendly so I’m told.

The highlight of our stay on Lembongan was definitely the day of fun dives I did. We went out with Blue Corner Diving who were super great from day one. I saved my day of fun diving for a day with less swell so we could go out to Manta Point. We went out early at 8am and saw dolphins playing in the water as the boat left the reef. The boat trip was fantastic to showcase the beauty of the Nusa Lembongan, Nusa Cennigan and Nusa Penida. We arrived at Manta Point being one of the first boats there and got in the water without delay. Within less than a minute of descending, we saw mantas. Not just one, but about eight to ten of them all together feeding. Throughout the dive, every so often a manta would just zip past you nonchalantly, it did not get old! Considering they were between 3-5m wide, it was definitely a little intimidating at first! What a thrilling first dive of the day. After that we dived at Crystal Bay where I finally saw my first turtle and then at Sen Tal where I had my first proper experience of drift diving. It was a fantastic day.

Thakhek: Green Climbers Home

We’re currently on our way to moving on having spent 25 days at Green Climbers Home in Thakhek. Having only planned to stay for 16 days, when it came to the leaving on our original end date, neither Ed or I felt ready to leave. The climbing was good, but so was Kalymnos and Tonsai. What really makes Green Climbers Home special is the people who turn up there. It felt like an adult summer camp where the days are spent throwing your efforts at the wall and nights are late hanging out with your friends you’ve made. Out of the people we met, I don’t think there was a single person who actually left on the day they had planned to leave which is real testament to the way the place is run. If you go, you will find that you have an entire valley to play with – a climber’s paradise. What was also really surprising was the proportion of people who arrived having never climbed and were there to learn.

I do think some of the grading at the crags are a bit off. Even the 5s and 6as proved to be challenging, more so than at other places we’ve climbed. Also, since I’d travelled for the prior two months with no training or climbing, it really whooped me the better half of the first week we were there. The climbing didn’t get easier, but I did get more comfortable and could climb harder.

My sport climbing goal for 2018 was to do my first 7a. I managed 6c+ in Tonsai in January before running out of time to project a 7a route there. Knowing how relatively weak and out of shape I was when I arrived, I didn’t really have any expectations of being able to climb hard. But after throwing myself continuously at a climb called Schwitzerland, on the eleventh attempt I finally made it. It’s a route with lots of lovely flowy technical moves, something I’d normally be really into but for some reason the climb was very intimidating to me. I’d managed to get to the last few moves about five times before I managed to send it. And even on my send try, I still didn’t quite believe that I could do it. My biggest weakness is currently and has been for quite some time a mental hurdle. Physically the moves actually never gave me too much trouble, my endurance was perhaps lacking a little but I could perform all the moves without trouble. I never felt quite comfortable on it to fully commit though. Whereas on a 6c route I’d projected a week earlier I could happily go for moves and fall without holding back. The emotions when I finally clipped the anchor was undeniable. Nothing else puts me in such a state as climbing does. What made it even better was that the friends I had made were climbing at the crag right next door so some could see me and cheers accompanied my pathetic sobbing. It was the best way to repay their belief in me throughout the days I projected the climb. Now I have the evidence to prove to myself I can do this, hopefully I can climb more confidently in future.

It’s only been two days since we left and already I miss the place, the lifestyle and most of all the people. Every single person who left before we did, I missed them and now I miss everyone like cattle misses their herd when they’re lost. I would definitely like to go back, although it’d be incredibly hard to replicate the time we had. Nevertheless, the 25 days has made my life and memories infinitely richer.