A blog with no name

notes and observations on my travels

Shoulders Part 2

clock March 24, 2015 17:06 by author Phil

OK, so it's been a couple of months since I hurt myself by falling off my mountain bike and I still have many more before I'm back to where I was before the accident.

I had a pretty good separation of my shoulder. My collarbone wasn't really attached to my shoulder anymore.

Here are some pics that were taken at the clinic on Jan 17:

It's pretty easy to see the separation between the clavicle and acromion, especially in the first picture.

My surgeon, Mr. Alex Malone, told me that based on the x-rays, it looks like a Grade 3 (out of 5) separation, but based on his physical examination, he graded it a 5. Without surgery, he said that I could get most of my strength and flexibility back. With the surgery, he said I should get it all back if I followed through with my physio. That made it a no-brainer for me and we scheduled me in for 17 February.

The surgery went off without a hitch. They took very good care of me at the hospital, which was quite flash.

Positive memories of the hospital:

  • plush terrycloth robe to wear while waiting for surgery
  • leather recliner while waiting for surgery
  • heated blanket pulled out of warmer for me when I got into OR
  • Very good painkillers. However, I did notice that the therapeutic dosage is much lower than the recreational dose!
  • Good food! Yeah, it's a common joke that hospital food is crap, but I got a nice roast lamb dinner with mash, veg and a very tasty chocolate raspberry dessert. 

The surgery went very well. Here's a few after pics of the shoulder.

A fluoroscope of my shoulder taken just after the AC reduction procedure

In the post-procedure x-rays, you can easily see the metal "dog bones" used to anchor the fibre tape that pulled my bones back into place.

Then they sent me home with some scrips for ibuprofen, paracetamol (acetaminophen to my US friends) and codeine. I didn't feel any pain at all for two days. Then my body realised that someone had drilled a couple of holes in my shoulder bones and then pulleyed the bones back together. My plan of just toughing it out fell by the wayside as I gulped down pain pills for that first week.

By two weeks out, I felt much better and was really hoping to do more than just straighten my arm out 3 times a day. My 2-week visit to Mr. Malone showed good results and I got to go see a physio where I was given some exercises to work on getting range of motion back. My goal was to get back to 90 degrees forward and 45 degrees of lateral rotation. I still had to wear the sling though.

As I write this, I'm almost 6 weeks out. I see the surgeon again in a few days and then I'll probably get to take the sling off and resume most of my normal activities. However, I won't get to do any strength training for another 3 months or so, depending on my range of motion.

The good news is that New Zealand has very good programs for people who are injured. I have a case worker for the Return to Work program who has a plan for me to phase back into work. I can't wait.

Shoulders Part 1

clock January 30, 2015 09:03 by author Phil

This has been a great summer in Christchurch. We had warm sunny weather for much of it. My son James came out and we had quite a bit of fun kayaking, climbing and just hanging out. We hadn't seen James since our trip back to California in June of 2014. In the meantime, I'd been working like crazy so that we'd have some money during the 3-weeks that James would be here.

Living in Christchurch, we are near some great mountain biking tracks. Some of the trails are wide easy tracks, while many are a bit too hard for Val and I and some are just plain scary. They even have trails where the hikers have to yield right of way to the bikes. A company just got approval for a lift served mountain bike park here similar to one in Queenstown. When the new park comes in, we'd be able to ride to it from our home quite easily.

Val and I have been exploring the various local trails after work and on weekends. We even joined a local private park that this guy has put onto his own land. The Haven mountain bike park is mostly the work of one guy and some folks who volunteer their time to bike at a different place. We've only been there once, but had some fun. I even tried out some of the trials stuff like a raised track. It's a lot easier if you relax and focus about 2 metres ahead of where you want to be going.



So after James left back to the States, Val and I decided it would be fun to go see one of the downhill mountain bike races that they have regularly here. We'd already missed the Lyttelton Urban downhill races so we thought it'd be a good idea to ride and watch some of it. We chose a fairly easy track up that's near our place called Rapaki. No problem, that track is wide and not as steep as lots of other tracks nearby. At the top, I waited for Val and then we continued on a fairly flat bit.

At this point, I noticed that I wasn't riding all that well. I was blaming it on my bike, but I'd just ridden up the hill with no issues. Anyway, I hurried to catch up with Val as I'd been dilly dallying while she took off. However, at one point on the ride, now singletrack, I stalled out and then stood up, thinking I could unclip out of my pedals. Unfortunately, I didn't unclip and toppled sideways. Usually, this isn't a problem as there are lots of tussock grasses to absorb the fall. This time though, I was on a slope with some exposed rocks so when I went down, it was a few metres before I impacted some volcanic rock (ignimbrite to you geo nerds out there) directly on my right shoulder.

Ouch! That hurt. I tumbled down the slope a few times before coming to a painful halt. My bike tumbled a bit more, the pedals unclipping after the second impact. Another rider behind me came up and checked to make sure that nothing was broken too badly. I could move my fingers and toes. I could breathe, but I was pretty sore. I got up and walked my bike down the trail to the road.

After a short time, the rider caught up to Val and told her that I'd taken a fall. No biggie, I often fall when riding the tracks here. How else to push your skills, eh? This time, I was in a really bad mood and just wanted to go home so I started off, not bothering to see if Val was behind me or not. The more I rode, the worse my shoulder started to hurt until I just started keeping my right arm in my lap while pedaling.

At home, I tried to fill a bag with ice and failed, spilling ice over the floor. Val had caught up to me and she filled it and I spent the next hour or so on the couch, icing the shoulder and waiting for the ibuprofen/naproxen to kick in. When it was time to take a shower, I found I couldn't lift my arm very high without a lot of pain, but I could still move it in other directions. Across my body was right out though. Val had to pull the shirt off and when she did, her face got really concerned and she said we had to go to the hospital. She thought I'd dislocated my shoulder. It looked like this:

You may not be able to tell, but my clavicle (collar bone) is not connected to the top of my shoulder (acromial) anymore and is making a bit of a bump.

Off we went to the local medical centre where we saw a doc who had some x-rays taken and then gave me a shot of Valium to relax me while they weighted my arm. However, since it wasn't a dislocation, traction wasn't going to pull my humerus (arm bone) back into the shoulder socket. After a little while, the doc figured this out and they sent me to the hospital. It's great, the orthopedic area is called the Bone Clinic. All they could do though was to give me a sling and an appointment to see the surgeon.

When I saw the surgeon, he had a couple of interns with him and he showed them what had happened. Turns out that I have a Grade 3 separation at the top where my AC joint has been sprained pretty badly. However, my scapula took most of the impact and has been pushed down and forward, resulting in a Grade 5 injury. He suggested keyhole surgery. It's scheduled for 17 February so I can start rehabbing as soon as I heal a bit.

One of the great things about living in New Zealand is that all accidental injuries are covered. In addition, since I can't do the physical part of my job anymore, I'll be on disability for at least a month. I'll let y'all know how the surgery goes.


clock April 22, 2013 15:53 by author Phil


Sorry I haven't added anything for a while. Since we've been in New Zealand, it's felt more like regular life and less like an adventure. Mostly it's been the over-riding realization that we're going to have to get jobs again and settle down. Whether it's in NZ or back in the States has kept us on our toes. 

Luckily, Val has a PhD from Cal in engineering. We're in Christchurch a lot of the time, which is earthquake central for NZ. Using her advanced Google stalking skills, Val was able to find ways to bypass the HR departments of various engineering firms and at the university here. That said, Kiwis are extremely friendly and willing to talk with you, even if they don't have open positions. 

Val has a job offer from the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, which is one of the top engineering schools in the country. It's only for a one year position, but if they like her, it could lead to a full time position. My health issues are holding our residency visa application up now, as I have to visit a rheumatologist. We didn't have enough time to get to see one in New Zealand. The rheumatologist I saw in the states is now deceased. Have you ever tried making an appointment via email when you didn't have health insurance? I gotta tell you, it ain't easy.

Anyway, we visited Australia in early April for a little over a week. It was really fun to see friends from California who live in Oz now. 

We flew in to Sydney on April 12 and stayed with Asaph for a while. Our flight left at 6 AM from NZ, which meant we had a 3:30 AM wakeup. Needless to say, I was pretty wrecked by the time we hit his place. After chatting for a while, I passed out in the spare room while pretending to read. After my nap, we still had the whole day to explore the city. Asaph had recommended a couple of things so we went to the city center, ate at a Chinese place famous for its noodles (while forgetting to order noodles) and had a good time.

 We took the ferry from the wharf next to the opera house to Manly. It was beautiful out on the water, with no clouds in the sky and a slight breeze. On the way back, we had a very interesting thing happen. There were two couples dressed up big time walking onto the ferry in front of us. We assumed they were heading to the opera for a fancy night out. Then when the boat was underway, we saw that their group had commandeered the front of the boat, pinning flowers onto the rails. Then a woman walked out and declared that she was a licensed wedding officiant and they were going to have a wedding on the ferry!

There were cheers, as well as some jeers from what must've been the groom's friends. Turned out he was Irish and had flow most of their family out for the occasion. Hm, whatever significance the ferry had was lost on us bystanders. Some of the groom's friends had been spending much of the day celebrating already. One guy was dressed in sweats and a ratty t-shirt. He grabbed a champagne bottle, shook it up and sprayed everyone he could, including the bride. Ooh, the look she gave him!

When we got to the dock, a cruise ship was leaving port so we couldn't go in right away. Instead, we were treated to a nice view of downtown Sydney at night.

Next day, we rented a car and headed to the Blue Mountains with Asaph for some rock climbing. The rock there is a medium grained sandstone with many chert like fractures that are called ironstone. The rock was very sticky for our climbing shoes and the ironstone provided great places to grab onto. Asaph and his friend Flint did most of the leading.

 Flint leading

 Pepe taking a rest

 I got in a lead too!

After dinner with Asaph, we put him on a train and Val and I camped near the crag before heading down to Canberra. We took the long way there, stopping at a touristy cave called Jenolan. We didn't have the time nor the inclination to spend money on one of their guided tours. Unfortunately, that was the only way we were going to get inside any of the fun stuff. No problem, we'd been caving in Thailand and the Philippines. However, we did get to see some cool animals


In Canberra, we stayed with Scott, Kate and their adorable kids Simon and Ruth. We spent several days with them, first camping near Canberra and then we got in a day of rock climbing at Nowra on the coast.


 A bird attacking its mirror image

We didn't really get any great photos of our climing at Nowra. The rock didn't have the ironstone to grab onto and everything was a bit rounded. Much harder for me. Val got some good stuff at sunset though

Don't believe what they say though. Red skies at night here led to a torrential downpour at our campground. We received about 150 mm of rain overnight, which is something like 6 inches. It was really blowing too. Luckily, we had pitched our tent on a slight incline so we missed the puddles that formed. However, the incline was also a bit convex so both Val and I had sleepless nights. 

One more night with kate and Scott at a nice beach campground. After the rain stopped, it was really nice there. The water was warmer than the air. We body surfed, built sand castles and then said our goodbyes. Another night in a nondescript motel south of Sydney, then we got to see Asaph again before catching our flight back to NZ. 

This trip was much too short to see anything. We're definitely going to have to return, rent a campervan and spend some time exploring. We didn't even get to see Arapiles. Oh well, there's always more places to see when you travel. . .

New Zealand North

clock March 7, 2013 13:10 by author Phil

After Thailand, New Zealand was a reverse culture shock. Everyone spoke English (kind of) and we had to wear more clothes than we had in months. On top of that, they have dairy products in this country that don't suck! 

Now that we're in New Zealand, our trip has changed from a fun only trip to a fun/get a job! bias. Before we left the States, we got a whole bunch of stuff together so that we could apply for residency in New Zealand as skilled migrants. With our background in earth science and IT, it should be a slam dunk. "Should" being the key word of course.

Anyway, we had heard back from NZ Immigration quickly when we filled out the original Expression of Interest. So we went ahead and started working on our application. Wow, talk about a ton of information needed. We had to get physical exams, background checks, fingerprints, and prove that we really did get those degrees we claimed we had. The background check didn't come back before we left on our trip so we couldn't send in the final application for a while. In the end, we had our paperwork sent to us in Thailand so that we could then complete the application and then send that on to London! We sent it in at the end of December and thought we'd hear back fairly quickly. Ha!

Since we were going to be more respectable, I thought it was time to get rid of my goatee. I'd been growing it since we left the US and it was getting pretty long now. Here's a before and after pic of me. 

I haven't been clean shaved in years. I did it for a week or so when we were in Hawaii a few years ago, but couldn't keep it up. We'll see how long it lasts now. Reactions have varied on the look.

Lots of people get around New Zealand in a campervan. It's a van that's been converted so that you can sleep in it. There's a huge trade in them, as people leaving New Zealand sell them to folks just starting their holiday. Val and I spent at least 10 days trying to find the right one. We really liked the self contained vans, as you can camp in many more places with one. The simplest definition of a self-contained campervan is that you carry enough water for 3 days and all your own waste away with you. That usually means a little water tank that pumps to a sink and a chemical toilet. There's also a tank to contain the gray (dish) water. 

While that's what we would've wanted, we couldn't afford a self-contained van. They were going for something close to $10,000 NZD. Even though the prices dropped as people realized this was coming up on the end of the season, it was still more than we could afford. A Toyota HiAce van would've been really good too, but they were also pricey. They ran about $5000 NZD. We were psyching ourselves up for one, getting our cash supply up and hitting the car fairs and websites like Gumtree or TradeMe. A couple of times, we liked a van, but either didn't buy it quickly enough because we were waiting for the price to drop and someone else got it or else it got a horrible review from a mechanic when we got it checked out.

In the end, we ended up buying a really little 1985 Nissan Vanette from a couple of Israeli hippies. 

"Sunny" is only 10 years younger than Val. She has some quirks that have taken a bit of getting used to. For instance, she doesn't like to start on wet mornings. That got us to get our AA membership very quickly. We found out that changing the spark plugs and plug wires fixes that. Also, a shot of WD-40 to the distributor cap gets her to start too. Changing the transmission fluid fixed her inability to stay in gear too. Hm, amazing what a little simple maintenance will do for a car.

Still, we're the slowest car on the road. I can deal with that if it gets us a little better petrol mileage. 

On the plus side, Sunny came with all the camping gear we need with a few items already in her pantry. She has a drop down table in the back and the bed inside converts into a couch. Most of our stuff goes under the couch. 

Our first trip in Sunny was to head north of Auckland (kinda pronounced like a New Yorker would say Orkland). We had a couple of ideas of where to go from our Lonely Planet and Rough Guide books, but got better info from our new friend George. He gave us a couple of places to check out and into Sunny we went.

After a night at Upiti Beach (and our first call too AA), we headed up to Whangarei (Fan-GAR-eye) so that I could watch the Super Bowl! Dang, the year that I leave California for an extended trip, both of my favorite teams make it to the championships. Well, the Giants won the World Series, but the Niners couldn't overcome the Ravens. No worries though, as we met a really nice couple, Bryce and Martha, who invited us to stay at their farm for a few days. We got to check out Bryce's project. He's digging a little pond on their property that he's going to use for some hydro power. 

The highlight of our trip north of Auckland though was when we explored the 90 mile beach at the far north of the island. You can drive on the beach, but we decided to play it safe and book a tour instead. We went with Sand Safaris and had a great time. Our driver didn't just tell us the basic history of the area as she drove us around. Instead, she gave us a bunch of the local gossip too. One farm we passed was owned by a couple of elderly men of Croatian descent (Dallys). Each night, they have dinner prepared for them by their sister, who lives on the next farm.

The tour started at an ancient Kauri tree park, then headed up to the northern cape. We got to see where the South Pacific and Tasman Seas meet

Obligatory sign post picture



The fun really started though, when we got onto the beach. 90 Mile Beach is a misnomer though, as it's really only about 88 km long (~50 miles). You go on the beach at low tide and it's beautiful there. We stopped at some dunes to do some body boarding. We were supposed to lay on the boards and keep our mouths shut. Of course we had to take it up a notch.

That night, we found a nice little beach campsite run by some Maori. Besides being cheap to stay at, they gave us some paua (abalone) and a snapper that went very well with the pipis we dug up. What a feast that night, all gathered locally fresh.

Bye bye Thailand

clock January 21, 2013 11:19 by author Phil

After James left, Val and I faced a little quandary. What to do next? Our Thai visa was expiring so we had to leave the country, even if only to extend it.

We could head north to Laos, maybe east to Cambodia or really explore and head into Burma. We'd met some folks who had gone to Burma and it was still exciting there. No established tourist culture like Thailand.  We'd heard of a climbing camp in Laos where there were great limestone walls and no one else around. Angor Wat was supposed to be a great place to visit too. What to do?

In the end, it came down to me being tired of it all. I was ready for something different than SE Asia. So, even though we hadn't heard anything from the New Zealand Immigration office yet, we booked a flight to Auckland.

Bye bye Southeast Asia!

But first, we had to do a very touristy thing: fish spa! If you've ever been to Thailand, you've probably walked past these shops. They have an aquarium out front with a lot of little fish in them. Sometimes you'll see some tourists trying it out and screaming. We thought that it was time for us too:


The idea is that you put your feet into the fish tank and the fish eat away your dead skin, leaving you with a nicely exfoliated foot. In practice, it tickles like nobody's business. We were the first people to visit the spa that day and as we got near to the tank, the fish got CRAZY! Val went first and she made some very funny noises. Here's her face after she got used to it a bit

P.S., you can't do this in the US. 


At the airport, we got a nice surprise. We knew that we couldn't enter New Zealand without a ticket out of the country. We had a ticket booked for Australia. However, the airline wouldn't let us check in until they saw our visa for Australia. WTF? So we had to head up to the internet lounge and quickly find one. After lots of fruitless clicking, we found one online visa that worked for us. It was probably the wrong one, but we were so frazzled we paid $120 each. Grr, that rankled.

Anyway, we were on our way to the promised land

or something like that.

Next up, New Zealand north 

Hanging with James, Part 2

clock January 12, 2013 21:42 by author Phil

After Pai and elephants, it was time to head down and do some diving. Unfortunately, we didn't take a single picture while on Koh Tao. All these pics have been lifted from the internet.

Due to the time limits on James' stay in Thailand, we decided to fly down to Koh Tao instead of the standard fly/bus/overnight ferry. It cost more, but Val was able to get us there in a single day instead of the 2 or 3 that the cheaper way would take.

Unfortunately, I got sick again the day before we left. I spent the last night not feeling well at all and could hardly move when it was time to leave Pai. It was all I could do to walk down to the bus station and hang out while Val and James got breakfast. In fact, I forgot to make sure that my CPAP got loaded onto the bus. We didn't discover that it was missing until we got to Chiang Mai and tried to offload it. After nearly an hour of trying to get the bus people to understand what we were looking for, Val emailed a picture of it to the bus people in Pai and I got them to put it onto the next bus down. With that, I went back to Banjai Garden to lie down and Val and James got dinner. After dinner, Val went back to the bus station and picked up the CPAP. Yay! That would've been quite a drag to have to find another one in Bangkok.

Early (5:30AM) next morning, we were off to the airport and onto a plane from Chiang Mai to Bangkok to Koh Samui. In Koh Samui, we got a ride to the ferry terminal and then on to Koh Tao. Luckily, Val had already booked us spots at Big Blue Diving. They had a driver meet us, which was really good because it was hard to negotiate the gauntlet of tuk-tuk and taxi drivers. Anyway, we got to Big Blue and got James set up. He headed off to his first day's class, a video and Val and I headed off to our room. Turns out that Big Blue has 3 facilities. James was staying at Big Blue 1, taking classes at Big Blue 2 and Val and my room was at Big Blue 3. 

We'd chosen Koh Tao because some other Americans had told us that it wasn't a party scene at Big Blue. HA!

Even though we were a couple hundred meters from the beach, we could hear the music thumping in our room. The night  before James moved in, one of his roommates got really drunk to celebrate his Open Water and then passed out while dancing on a table in the dorm room. He took a header into a table, cut his face up and got blood all over the room. The second night, another group finished their Open Water and so James spent that night in our room. After a day in the pool, he wasn't that excited about diving. It's not that fun practicing your skills when the water really burns your eyes.

In the mornings, the beach is really pretty. All the drunk farangs are snoring in their bungalows and it's mostly locals and early divers who are awake.


While James was taking his class, Val and I were diving! Big Blue has a discount policy, where you get reduced costs for more dives. The initial costs are 1000 Baht/dive, which goes down to 900 if you take 3-6 dives, ending up at 700 Baht per dive if you take more than 11 with them. They have boats that leave twice a day, with 2 dives per trip. They also sometimes had night dives, which we didn't end up doing. 

The dive boats were definitely controlled chaos. When you first signed up, you would get your gear together for the next day if you were diving. That involved getting a BCD, fins and wetsuit and putting them into a numbered mesh bag. When it was time to go diving, you'd get your bag from the equipment room and take it down to the beach. They had a longtail boat then shuttle us out to the dive boats. Big Blue has 4 dive boats, one of which is dedicated to their diving classes. On the boat, we'd get a regulator from our divemaster and then set up a weight belt. At the end of the day, regulators and weight belts go back into a big bin and we took our bags back to the equipment room. If you were diving the next day, you just put your bag into the equipment room. I never needed a wetsuit since the water is so warm there. I did wear a rash guard though since it was more comfortable and made it easy for Val to locate me underwater. 

The Big Blue system worked pretty well. We would be assigned to groups of 4 or 5 divers with a divemaster. Sometimes we had an assistant divemaster, someone working towards his divemaster certification. The cost of going from Open Water to Divemaster is pretty minimal at Big Blue because part of the cost of taking the class is offset by the DMT (DiveMater in Training) working dives too. 

Val and I did two half-day trips (2-dives) and a full day trip (3-dives), visiting many of the sites on Koh Tao. On the full day trip, we went to Sail Rock, which was about 2 hours away. We went to Sail Rock hoping to see a whale shark, but had no luck. We did see a ton of Giant Grouper though. Fun times, but the 3rd dive was at Shark Island and we had poor visibility and strong currents. The currents were so strong that Val had trouble catching her breath on the bottom and sucked up her air pretty quickly. Didn't matter in the end, as I was eager to get out of the water after a while spent chasing vague shapes down there. Supposedly, our divemaster saw a shark, but all I spotted was him zooming off just when Val had to stop and rest.

Checking in with James that night was fun. They'd gone out and done their first open water dives. He was ecstatic and his enthusiasm was contagious. His initial dismay with Koh Tao and the scene had been replaced with a new love of SCUBA diving. Each dive was more spectacular than the last. We made plans to dive after he got his Open Water certification. 

We figured an afternoon dive would be best to allow for the traditional blowout celebration. James barely made it too. Good thing he skipped out on the Jaeger bomb the night before! We had a lot of fun on our dive together and can't wait for a chance to take a dive vacation.

However, James had to get back to California and college. We set off the next day to Bangkok. After Chiang Mai and Koh Tao, Bangkok was a major disappointment to us. Lots of cars and smog and people. Costs were also higher than CM and we had trouble finding good food. James had a half day before his flight, so we tried a little exploring. Our usual tactic on this trip has been to just wander around and see what's interesting. We used the Lonely Planet as a starting point, but have found that by the time a place makes it into Lonely Planet, it also gets a hoard of folks who want to go there because they've also read about it. Bangkok was too big for that and our taste does not run to big cities anyway. After turning away from the Grand Palace, we hopped into a longtail boat for a 1.5 hour tour. That wasn't so bad. 

The floating market is not so big on the weekends. It's just a few women paddling their canoes around. Supporting the local economy, we bought a beer. Good thing the drinking age in Thailand is 18

This turned out to be the highlight of our day. We spent a long time in traffic trying to get to Chinatown and then got a little freaked out because of the time it was taking us to do stuff. We didn't find any good food stalls, so we wolfed down some mystery meat on a stick and hopped on the Sky Train to the airport. 

I was very sad to see James leave. He had been lots of fun to hang with for the two weeks we had him. Looking forward to when we can do this again.

After James left, we found this bar:


Supposedly, the drinking age has been increased to 20 from 18, but J never got carded. . .

Hanging with James, Part 1

clock January 1, 2013 18:37 by author Phil

After Christmas, which we spent rock climbing, our friends Kurt and Sumi came out to Thailand. We spent 4 fun days with them north of Chiang Mai at Cave Lodge. We crawled on our bellies through a cool, wet cave, hiked around taking 3 hours for a 1 hour hike, and also visited a small Karen village. 

Returning to Chiang Mai, we spent the craziest New Year's Eve ever!

This picture shows some of the insanity of the evening. The yellowish lights are not stars, but paper lanterns, lit by people for good luck in the new year. These paper cylinders are about a meter long and 500 cm in diameter. There's a big chunk of paraffin soaked cloth at the bottom to provide the candle power to lift it into the air. The Thais light them and they drift off into the sky, taking your good wishes up to heaven. 

Being New Year's Eve, other people can't let good enough alone and light them wherever they are, even if that's under a power pole. After we saw 3 lanterns burning on the power line, we decided it was time to move to somewhere a bit more safe.

You see, besides paper lanterns, there was an abundance of cheap, powerful fireworks. This being Thailand, you are more responsible for yourself and can buy most anything if you have enough money. This being New Year's Eve, you are encouraged to consume large amounts of alcohol. This being Thailand, Red Bull is extremely cheap (10 Baht/bottle). Mix all 3 and you get a severe dilution of common sense.

After a while, firecrackers and M-80 bombs became commonplace. Roman candles (handheld tubes that shoot fireballs) became mundane. Rockets became blah. As we walked around the road that rings the old city, we noticed real fireworks. You know, they're the ones that get launched in a mortar and shoot up hundreds of feet into the air. In the States, you have to be a 1/4 mile away where they ignite them. Here in Chiang Mai, you can buy these fireworks in Chinatown. People were walking into the middle of the street and lighting them. We would hear the whoomp of the mortar going off, then a big boom as the explosion rocked us.

It was all very pretty, but we weren't drunk enough to forget that quality control isn't always that good. Sure enough, one of the fireworks exploded close to the ground, showering folks with hot sparks. We got away clean, but heard tales later of really drunk people pointing those rockets at low targets like tuk-tuks.


On that note, my son James came to visit us for a couple of weeks. Between semesters in his second year at Humboldt State University, James had accepted our offer to spend his winter break in a warm place. We had lots of ideas, but no set plans. Better to let him have a say in what we were going to be doing.

First, we went to Crazy Horse, our favorite climbing area in Thailand. The rock is less polished than at Railay and the cooler climate is better for me and Val. The 3 of us set out one morning in the Sang Teow provided by CMRCA, the local climbing shop. Another climber there was looking for a partner so we became two groups of 2 instead of a threesome. That meant more climbing for me as our new friend, John, climbed much harder than us. Alas, roped climbing is not really James' cup of tea, so we didn't return again.

Instead, we hopped in a minivan and headed up to Pai, where we found an incredibly laid back town. Val found us a nice quiet guest house and we checked in for the duration. Prices were a little higher than Chaing Mai, but still pretty cheap. We got James his own room too, which was best for all of us. Who wants to share a room with his dad and stepmom anyway?

The main reason we were in Pai was elephants. We'd read about riding them and it seemed incredible that you could spend time on such a large animal. My good friend Michelle had come up here and spent time at Thom's Elephant Camp. After trying to figure things out online and then having a little trouble communicating on the phone, we found Thom's office in Pai and booked a day where we could become mahouts. Early the next day, we went to Thom's and were driven up to their camp, a few kilometers outside of town. We were encouraged to get to know the elephants by feeding them. 

It was a bit intimidating at first. Elephants are big! They weigh around 3 tons when fully grown and are over 3 meters tall at the shoulders. When they saw us coming over with some snacks, they all stretched out their trunks to us. It's kinda like when a big dog runs towards you. Even if you really like dogs, it can be a little intimidating. When a 3 ton animal moves towards me, I tend to keep my distance. Better safe than sorry.

Turns out that the elephants at Thom's are like big puppies. They really, really love to eat and so it was easy to make friends with them by feeding them. We handed them some bamboo and watched as they stripped the papery leaves off with their trunks and shoved them into their mouths. Thom says they eat all day, needing about 250 kg of food a day. It certainly appeared that way to us. 

We got to ride the elephants too! With the command of *Song*, my elephant raised her right leg so I could climb up and onto her back. Too cool! We took a walk around the farm and then went down to the river. This was by far, my favorite portion of the day.

On our way to the river:

Then the fun began. The command "Bon" will get you wet:



The real mahouts had some other commands they didn't teach us too:

James tries to stay on



We stayed all day, helping with more feedings and hanging out when they went on a walk. In time, we came to really enjoy their company.

We ended our day by taking the elephants to their night time pasture and helping cut some food for them. 

Like it so much, we went back the next day to feed them some more when we went out scootering.

Our next day in Pai, we rented scooters and took a long trip through the countryside. It was so different from scootering in Chiang Mai. Hardly any cars and lots of beautiful scenery.

 Let's ride!


Next: James learns to dive!

Paddling the Mae Taeng

clock December 16, 2012 17:04 by author Phil

For two months now, Val and I have been traveling through SE Asia. We quit our jobs, sold most of our stuff and put the rest in storage. Starting in the Philippines, we’ve been working our way north, through Malaysia, Singapore and now into Thailand. We’re currently staying in Chiang Mai, the second largest city in Thailand.

We decided to try paddling on the Mae Taeng River, which is about 75 km north of the city. After looking around, SiamRiver Expeditions won our money. On Sunday, December 16, their van came to our guesthouse and picked us up for the 2 hour ride to the river. We stopped twice along the way to pick up some folks who were doing the rafting portion.

Once we got to the put-in spot, the rafters went on a short elephant ride while Val and I went to scout the Class IV rapids.  Here’s a pic of the rapids map from their brochure:


After elephant rides and scouting, it was time for lunch! We got a yummy Thai buffet. Then it was time to get our kayaks outfitted. We didn’t bring any gear with us from the States, as it is really hard to schlep that stuff across the world, so we got to use what they had there. I would’ve preferred my own pfd and paddle, but the gear was mostly serviceable.


I fit into my boat, a Bliss-Stick Mystic, with no problems. Seems that the guy who had it before me was about the same size. I didn’t even have to move the bulkhead.

Val, on the other hand, had more problems. They had a pretty big boat for her and she was swimming in it. We put her into a Bliss-Stick Scud and managed to put enough foam into the front so that her feet had something to push against. The loose feel and other equipment that didn’t fit led to a not so psyched for whitewater feeling in her, which was only exacerbated on the water. Val isn’t the most daring paddler in the best of times and the wonky gear was giving her some serious misgivings.

On the river, I had a great time, working the easy rapids at the beginning of our run to get a feel for the boat. I could roll it easily on both sides and it held a line, especially when I put it on edge.

At one of the Class III drops, our guide, Sok, gave us a simple direction and showed the line. Val hesitated because she couldn’t see the bottom of the rapid. After I ran it without problem, she dropped in and did just fine. When we got to the Class IV drops though, she decided to hop in a raft and let one of the guides take her boat through. She’d been wondering how the rafts fit down such a narrow and technical drop. Once out of the kayak, it became pretty obvious: the rafts just bounce and slide over the rocks.


Mostly the guide just told the raft passengers to get into the middle and hold on. Val couldn’t do that though and tried to help out. With all its momentum, the raft still hit rocks and bounced its way down.

My line was a little different:


After running Dragon (IV), I had to empty water out of the boat. Didn’t matter though, as I was having a great time. Super psyched, we dropped Near the Wall and Khao Boy. Woot! The last IV was Standing Wave and it was pretty fun too. Not too hard in a kayak, but the rafts all hit the sides.


Val even managed to smile on this rapid


After Standing Wave, Val got back into the kayak and paddled the rest of the river, except for Swimmers Chute. She wasn’t really trusting the guides because they kept saying one more, then one more.

All in all, I had a great time on the Mae Taeng. Siam Rivers was the best outfitter we could find here and if you have your own gear, they’re happy to shuttle you up to the river. If you’re a Class IV paddler, you should have no problem on this run. I hadn’t paddled for about 3 months before this and I know I was a bit rusty. However, the warm water made it easy to loosen up. I was happy to use a bigger boat for my first time down too, as it would’ve been pretty challenging in a play boat.

As a tentative Class III paddler, Val made a wise choice and rafted the Class IV rapids. At this low level, they were very technical and rocky. At higher flows, you wouldn’t have to worry about hitting rocks as much. Higher flows could also mean higher hydraulics and holes that are sticky. I won’t know until I come back in the wet season (July-August). I do know that I’d like to paddle this river again.

After a little searching, I found this video of the river at higher flows. Looks less technical, but still fun!


Railay and Tonsai

clock December 4, 2012 19:41 by author Phil

After spending a few days sick in bed, it was time to get on to why we were in Thailand in the first place: rock climbing!

There are a few major crags at Railay. We spent most of our time at Phra Nang, Tonsai and Diamond Cave. Diamond Cave is at the end of the orange line N of 82 on this map. 

Val and I were still staying in Ao Nang, the beach town nearby so we took a long tail boat out there to see what was up. Our first day, we went to Phra Nang beach and did some bouldering. I had spent a half hour or so here in 1996, trying to get off the ground on a stalactite problem. With a stool, it was doable, but still really hard 

I got off the ground, but that was about it. On my second try, I fell off and almost impaled myself on the stool. No more stalactite climbing for me! We bouldered around and watched some people climb moderates and some hard stuff. Besides, after climbing for a while, I got super tired and sweaty. After hanging out in the water for a while, I almost cooled off. It's hard to get cool when the water temp is 30C. Yeah, I know, first world problems. 

In Thailand, they use the French difficulty scale so we had to convert them to something we understood. In the US, most places use the Yosemite Decimal system. Luckily for me, the grades are a bit "soft" here, meaning that I can climb things harder than I normally would be able to climb at home. Ego boost win! I was leading 6a pretty regularly and could hang my way up 6b and was looking for a 6c. We watched some people work their projects and we got jealous. When one woman was psyched to get Andaman Cafe (7b), she was stoked and said she could drink beer again. Hm, I like to climb, but that seems a bit extreme, doesn't it?

We took a break and Val completed her Advanced Open Water diving course. Now she can do the deep dives with me when we return to Coron. 

Back to climbing. Our next stop was Diamond Cave. We went there because we wanted to see how hard the rope climbing was. We were both really rusty. We hadn't climbed that hard when we were in Arcata and the "easy" routes here were at the limit of my leading ability. We were hoping to climb some 5's, but the local climbing schools take up all the easy routes all day. They got to be pretty irritating too, calling out super detailed beta to people who were in a 1 or 2 day class:
     "Right foot up!" "Right hand!" "Right hand!"
Ugh, it was too much for me, but that was the way the local schools were running the show. It kept us off of the 1,2,3 crag entirely. 

Another downer about the easy routes is that lots of people who don't have good footwork climb them, polishing the rock to a smooth finish. Thus, you have to be very careful where you place your feet or they will grease right off the rock. 

I spent a lot of time hanging here. I was doing OK for most of this route and then I got tired and lost my nerve. Part of the problem was that I had to climb past 7 or so bee nests in the rock. They were apparent from the waxy tubes coming out from the rock. We didn't know how easily the local bees got angry, so I was very careful not to smash the tubes. Of course the nests were situated in perfect hand and foot placements.

After two routes, we were totally wasted. Val was being eaten alive by mosquitoes and the heat was affecting her ability to think. I think her attention wandered at times


Then the sky opened up and we were done climbing for the day. Luckily there was a coffee shop right next to the crag. And, even better, the guy knew how to make totally awesome coffee. Without electricity!! We were wondering what to get when he put these on the counter

Wow, he made the frothed milk using a french press. And they tasted as good as they looked.


But we were here to climb, so we headed back to Ao Nang, packed a couple of small bags and had our guesthouse store the others for a few days so we could go work our forearms to death.

We picked Tonsai as a place to stay. It was a wonderful choice. There are no vehicles on Railay because there is no road from Ao Nang out onto the peninsula. It's wonderfully quiet, except for the diesel generators that run at night. We found a guest house a little ways from the beach, grabbed our ropes and set off in search of something to climb. 

Yikes! Stuff was really hard at the first place we went. After watching people project 7b, we wandered down the beach to find the only 6's. I got the first one just fine, but had trouble on the second until I found the secret holds. After that, it went pretty well.

Next day, we jumped onto a climb called Groove Tube (6a). I liked it quite a bit, but the sun was out and it was f'ing hot! Val nearly died trying to belay me. We found a 6a+ in the shade, but it was too overhanging and pumpy for her. She finally got it, but tweaked her forearms a bit. Too bad the only cure for tennis elbow is rest. 

To combat the heat, we signed up to go deep water soloing. This is climbing at its purest form: no ropes or partner. You climb up the rock and when you finish, you jump into the ocean. If you fall, you get wet. Everyone gets wet. You want to get wet because it's Thailand and hot if you're not wet.

We jumped onto a long tail boat with 10 other folks. Everyone was way younger than me, but that was OK. This wasn't a competition. We went to two sites, both very close to each other. The first site had about 6 routes and I tried 3 of them. I got up the 5 and 6a and fell off of the 6b. Here's me jumping off of the top of the 6a. 

Ha, it looked scary from the top of this one. I deal with the fear by turning off a switch in my head and not thinking about it. Just jump.

My main problem is remembering to bring my arms in before I hit the water. More than one time, I slapped the water with my forearms. That was better than one of the guys, who fell sideways and got a really good mark from his back flop.

Val got into it too and worked her way up. Here she is midway up the 5:

After climbing here, we had lunch on a nice little beach and did a little snorkeling. Val and I also played king of the kayak. I don't know how we kept our teeth.

The second location was just around the corner and the routes were harder and higher. I only did the 6a and didn't go all the way to the top. It was probably close to 20m. A guide for another group did a back flip off the high tufa. He over rotated a bit though. Here's some people who aren't me and Val climbing there.


Val's got a cold now so we're back in Ao Nang. We'll be back, but probably not before 2013 starts, hopefully with James.

Illin' in Paradise

clock November 25, 2012 22:39 by author Phil


It had to happen eventually. According to the Center for Disease Control, traveler's diarrhea is the most common ailment affecting people. About 20-40% of people get it within the first few weeks of their trip. Took me about 6 weeks. I had been getting a little lax in my personal hygiene, mainly because it's hard to find a way to dry your hands in public toilets. 

Oh well, I've been confined to my little hostel room for a day and a half now and am getting bored. Time to overshare with the world.

The TMI Turkey!

 First off, I'm totally fine and am able to eat a bit. Val was a little worried, but unless I don't respond to the drugs we have, it shouldn't be a problem. These things usually resolve themselves in a couple of days by themselves. However, I took some Cipro anyway to try and make this resolve a little more quickly. 

Most of the time, TD is due to e. coli bacteria that your body is not used to. They are transmitted by eating food that is contaminated by infected feces. Sounds really gross, but all that has to happen is for someone to not wash their hands properly when preparing food or for me to drink some contaminated water or a ton of other simple things.

So I'm sick and Val isn't. That's really strange because we've eaten almost the exact same food. Maybe she already had antibodies for this strain or else I drank water from the tap. Hard to be sure. Maybe she'll get sick in a few days.

TD is pretty easy to treat. Most of the time, it responds very well to Cipro. In SE Asia, there may be Cipro resistant strains, which would necessitate the use of something stronger like azithromycin. We'll see. I'm only in day 2 so it should be cleared up in a day or so anyway. Just in case, Val's off to sign up for a 2-day diving class so she could become and Advanced Open Water Diver. That would let her go deeper and even to do a little wreck diving. I did some wreck piercing in the Philippines and it was really worthwhile.

As soon as I started typing this up, Val, of course, had to go and announce it to Facebook. Wasn't sure if I should stop or just keep on plowing on. Oh well, if I'm going to be sick, Ao Nang in Thailand is not a bad place to lie up for a few days. We started with a trip to Railay Beach to check out the climbing. Now this is the reason we brought our gear all the way from California! Lots of limestone sport routes, with new glue in titanium bolts too. When I'd been to Thailand in 1996, all I saw were rusty steel bolts. Very scary to take a fall on. Can't wait to get out there and see how badly I really suck at sport climbing. Oh well, just have to get over the fear of falling. When the rock is overhanging, it's much safer than what we normally climb. Just harder physically.

OK, next post should be about fun stuff!

About the author

After working at the same company for 21 years, I've decided to quit and spend some time traveling. I'm going to try and share some of the trials and tribulations of my journey.

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