Hawaii

I’m Baaaaack!!!

My sis and me, tired, hungry, and a bit bedraggled, but overjoyed to see each other at the airport!

My sis and me, tired, hungry, and a bit bedraggled, but overjoyed to see each other at the airport!

Over 5,000 miles later…I made it!!

Emotions overwhelmed me again as I walked outside to the airplane steps at the Kwajalein airport a couple of days ago. Leaving behind people and places that had meant so much to me (even to the United plane sitting beside my ATI plane, I waved at both sides to a good friend who had just arrived back from vacation), I tried to both soak in the last moments and shut out the feelings of sadness.

Just as I got to the steps it started to sprinkle, and I said aloud, “a fitting farewell for Kwaj” (to which one of the airport workers said “yep!”). The sun then came back out though, for a fine last view of the island. As we taxied down the runway, I saw one of the weather station techs outside getting the 00Z balloon ready to launch, and he waved at my plane, not even knowing if I could see him. I managed to get a window seat on the DC8, so I did see him though, and that made me both happy and sad again.

When the plane turned around and kicked it into high gear, I couldn’t help the tears streaming down. I cried until I could no longer see the island (which was a bit longer than you might think, as I craned my neck back for so long it hurt), and then settled back with a sigh to watch the rest of the islands of Kwajalein Atoll disappear into the blue of the sea and the sky.

The flight to Hickam (air force base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu) was uneventful and seemed to go by fairly quickly. At the baggage claim I said a quick goodbye to a couple of Kwaj friends and shared a taxi to the Ala Moana Hotel.

Part of the view from my 9th floor balcony

Part of the view from my 9th floor balcony

This time even with three large bags (quite hard for me to deal with, but doable) and a backpack, I somehow managed to make it up the elevator and to my room on the first try (might have something to do with someone else inserting their key card and then me pushing my button after his).

The other part of the view from my balcony

The other part of the view from my balcony

After settling in a bit, I walked over to the mall across the street for dinner. Every time I leave Kwaj I feel a bit overwhelmed at first by the traffic and “civilization”. One of the first sights to greet my eye was a trolley full of Asians with the driver leading in a hearty rendition of “YMCA” (maybe having something to do with the tour group just having passed the Y. They all looked so happy I couldn’t help smiling and waving back.

I got a good night of sleep and was up at a decent hour for breakfast before taking a shuttle to the airport.

Open breezeway at HNL

Open breezeway at HNL

I had a direct flight to Portland that was only a few minutes longer than my flight the previous day to Hickam, but somehow it felt an hour or so longer (perhaps having something to do with it being a crowded commercial flight instead of 15 people on a private carrier being treated nearly like first class).

Approaching PDX (Columbia River on the left, Mount Hood on the right)

Approaching PDX (Columbia River on the left, Mount Hood on the right)

My first glimpse of land was dramatic; coming out of the clouds, I saw forests of dark green Oregon conifers, and I thought I’d rarely seen a more beautiful sight. Barring the dying Black Hills of South Dakota (forests turned to brown and orange thanks to the pine beetles) that I saw a couple months ago while storm chasing, I hadn’t seen evergreen forests in two years.

I saw pasturelands next, against the beautiful backdrop of the Cascade Mountains, with Jefferson and Hood being most prominent.

Next came cities and the Willamette River, running down to the Mighty Columbia, with my home state of Washington on the other side. I also then saw Mount Adams and St Helens.

At this point the journey ended almost as emotional as it had begun. After two years, my reunion with the Pacific Northwest was a wonderful one, and I laughed and shed a few more tears of joy and yet still sadness for the life I had left behind on a tiny rock in the middle of the Pacific.

My sister and I were then happily reunited at the Portland airport, and after we got my bags and went to dinner, we made it safely back to her home in Kelso (southwest Washington).

May the next 2.5 weeks of visiting family and friends, sightseeing, and shopping and preparing for my New Zealand adventure go slowly and fantastically!

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Categories: Hawaii, Kwajalein, Living Abroad, Marshall Islands, Oregon, United States, Washington | Leave a comment

Under the Sea

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Instead of writing about individual scuba dives, some of which I have already done on my Kwajalein blog, I’d like to share a bit about the experience as a whole, where I have been, and where I hope to go in the near future.

I have always loved the ocean. I grew up in Washington State, and spent a lot of time in the mountains and a little bit of time on the coast. If my family had to decide between mountains and ocean, my Mom and I would always say ocean, while my sister and Dad would always say mountains.

I love looking across the ocean and thinking about what and who is on the other side, and what all is under the water. Now that I have lived on a tiny island surrounded by nothing but water for two years, I yearn for the mountains, so am that much more excited that I can have the best of both worlds in New Zealand.

At any rate, coming to Kwajalein I figured I would finally take the plunge and learn how to scuba dive.

My second day of diving; photo taken by my instructor, Doug Hepler. Used with permission.

My second day of diving; photo taken by my instructor, Doug Hepler. Used with permission.

Within two months of my move, I was certified as an open water diver, which meant that I could dive to 60 feet.

On my first dive, I fell in love.

Kwajalein’s waters are warm, clear, full of marine life and wrecks, and not full of people (actually I liked that about diving; you can hang out with people without having to talk with them). It truly feels like swimming in a giant tropical aquarium, and it’s right in my backyard.

I love a friendly octopus

I love a friendly octopus!

To tell the truth though, it took me a couple of extra lessons in the pool before I passed that portion of the scuba class and was able to go on the first dives. I have long enjoyed swimming, but my biggest fear has always been drowning, and I had a hard time relaxing that first time breathing under water.

I then remembered a memory I had long suppressed; when I was about 5 years old or so, I jumped off a diving board in a public pool near Seattle, and lost my orientation. I remember swimming down instead of up, and then I blacked out. When I came to, a friend of the family was leaning over me, probably assessing whether or not he needed to perform CPR. I guessed that’s probably where my long-standing fear of drowning came from.

I’m generally one to face my fears head on. I was terrified of my first tornado, so I decided to go storm chasing. I was terrified of drowning, and decided to scuba dive as soon as I had the opportunity. I see a cliff, I want to walk to the edge and look down. Okay, not always, but sometimes I feel that urge, but know I’m only invincible in my dreams.

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Taken by my dive instructor, Doug Hepler. Used with permission.

I really don’t say this to boast, though, but more for the benefit of those who are scared to go diving. If I can do it, you can do it.

A few months after I completed my initial training, I completed the advanced diver class, and was certified to dive to the recreational dive limit of 130 feet. I also took Nitrox training, which means I can dive with a higher blend of oxygen, allowing me to stay in the water longer on some deep dives, with lower risk of getting decompression sickness (DCS, aka the bends).

Since I love photography, it was only natural that I should want to take my camera underwater. After I began with just a relatively cheap point-and-shoot waterproof camera, I decided to go all out and upgrade my DSLR to a Canon 7D and purchase a full underwater system for it.

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Yes, it’s heavy, and a bit unwieldy, but underwater it’s only slightly negatively buoyant and works like a dream (most of the time). I’ve been told I look like a submarine on night dives, with my two strobe lights on and my wide angle 8-inch-diameter dome port.

While it was quite expensive, I have not once regretted spending the money. I have only to improve my photography skills, as the equipment is top notch and I expect to use it for years to come.

Underwater photography has given me more of a purpose and happiness while diving and snorkeling. While I love to just quietly observe marine life, the most dull dive can usually be made interesting if I have my camera with me, as I can always see something from a different perspective.

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Clownfish are my favorite fish to see and photograph!

I have enjoyed about 100 dives around Kwajalein Atoll. I could have had many more, but did start to experience a bit of burnout earlier this year as I had already been to many of the sites so many times, and wanted something fresh. In spite of what I just said about my camera making a difference, I just needed a bit of a break to do other things (such as spearfishing in the tide pools for lobsters and crabs at night–quite fun!), and felt pretty happy about some of my photos from many of the sites.

I have dove from Kwajalein to Roi-Namur, and so far my only trip outside of the Marshall Islands to dive was to go to Kona, Hawaii, to see manta rays (my blog post from that dive). I have seen manta rays here at Kwajalein, but Kona is one of the famous spots for large groups of them.

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I had never seen such beautiful creatures, and it remains my favorite dive.

Aside from the marine life, Kwajalein Atoll has many WWII wrecks. I already wrote about the planes near Roi-Namur recently. One of the best wreck dives near Kwajalein is the Prinz Eugen, a German WWII battleship which you can learn more about on this Wikipedia link.

Torpedoes on the Prinz Eugen

Torpedoes on the Prinz Eugen

There are so many highlights photos I could post; so many of my favorites. So instead of bogging you down too much here, I hope you will go to my Flickr collection of dive photos.

Clown Triggerfish

Clown Triggerfish

As to where I hope to go diving in the near future, New Zealand has lots of great diving, so I’ve heard. I’m just going to need to get a much thicker wet suit or learn how to use a dry suit, as the waters are just a bit colder there!

There are lots of interesting sites for marine life, including probably the most famous, Poor Knights, off the northern peninsula of the North Island. There are also opportunities to go diving in and around an active volcano, and to see some wrecks such as the Rainbow Warrior, a Greenpeace ship blown up by the French in 1985.

Speaking of facing fears….they also have Great White Shark cage diving off of Stewart Island, just south of the South Island. I think I’m going to have to do that at some point soon!

Categories: Adventure Sports, Hawaii, Kwajalein, Marshall Islands, New Zealand, Roi-Namur, Scuba Diving and Snorkeling, United States | 2 Comments

The Magic of Elevators

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Some kids are fascinated by elevators. Aka lifts. Aka liffts as they are creatively known in Wales.

They like to push all the buttons.

Me, I was fascinated by escalators. When given the choice, I always preferred using an escalator, as I thought there was something rather magical in a moving staircase, provided you get out of the way at the end so your feet don’t get eaten. I still love escalators and tend to prefer them to this day.

Elevators have always made me feel slightly claustrophobic (unless it’s a glass elevator, those are cool), for the same reason I always get a window seat on a plane. Speaking of, I admit I’m a bit nervous to find that I’ll be leaving Kwaj on a plane with no windows, so my last look at the island as I walk up the steps to board, will indeed be my last look at the outside world for several hours until I get off at Hickam AFB in Honolulu. At the same time, it’s kind of cool that I’ll get the chance to fly on a C17, for the first and likely last time in my life.

But I digress.

When my company sent me to Kwajalein two years ago, they arranged for me to stay in a not inexpensive hotel in Honolulu, the night before taking my flight here. The Ala Moana Hotel is a lovely place, and is adjacent to the Ala Moana Mall, making it an ideal choice if you make it to Hono in time to do some shopping.

You can see the top of one of Ala Moana's towers on the right, with the two antennae on top.

You can see the top of one of Ala Moana’s towers on the right, with the two antennae on top.

When I checked in, I was told my room would be in a tower (12th floor or something like that) for which I would need my room key to access the elevator. Every room above the 4th floor requires the guest to insert the key card inside the elevator and then push the right button to go up. I had never before stayed in a hotel where this was required.

I walked rather doubtfully to the elevators, and pushed the up button. One of the four sets of doors opened, and I rolled my bags inside and took a look at the panel. Just then some other people walked in, inserted their card, pushed their button, and the doors closed. I tried to quickly push my button as well, but it didn’t light up, and was afraid of making too much a fool of myself by fumbling with my card when I didn’t know what I was doing, so I played a greater fool and silently pretended I was going to the same floor. (I’m the same helpless person who to this day has not been able to figure out how to work an entertainment center on the seat in front of me on a plane, even while watching a six-year-old next to me power hers up and fly through the options and get to watch a movie.)

Once the others got off, I inserted my card and pushed my button. Sadly I was not fast enough, though, and the elevator went up past my floor and the doors opened and someone else got on, and pushed the ground floor button. I again could not get the elevator to stop in time at my floor, and so I continued going up and down a few times before I finally humbled myself to ask someone for help.

Despite this faux pas, I have stayed at the Ala Moana three times since while traveling back to Kwaj after vacations, as it is a good hotel and well located.

The view from my room (looking down on the mall), after I managed to find it.

The view from my room (looking down on the mall), after I managed to find it.

On my last visit, a month ago, I ran into a similar problem. My room was on the 5th floor, and the hotel staff told me where the elevators were. (Yeah, yeah, I had done this three times before and had it down now, or so I thought.) I went to the main elevators, pushed the up button, and walked in. I was about to insert my key when I saw THERE WAS NO 5TH FLOOR! Just like in superstitious hotels where the buttons skip from floor 12 to floor 14, this elevator went from button 4 to button 6.

Hmm. Not to be deterred, I coolly swiped my card and pushed button 6. On floor 6, I looked around for the stairs. I searched what felt like half the floor (come on, where are the fire maps showing where to evacuate in case of emergency?), and all I found to help me were some more elevators. I thought I might try these, as I was correct in assuming by now that only certain elevators stopped at certain floors in the tower (maybe I should have listened to the staff?).

I pushed the down button, and it wasn’t long before a set of doors opened, and to my slight dismay I saw the elevator was occupied by another young woman. I quickly inserted my card and pushed the now apparent button 5.

“Only going down one floor?” she asked.

“Yes, I wound up going up in an elevator that didn’t have a 5th button.”

Looking like she was trying to suppress her laughter, she said, “well now you’ll have to just go back up, as it looks like you weren’t fast enough to get it to stop at your floor.”

Down at the ground floor again, I finally managed to get the elevator to go up and stop where I wanted it to. Whew.

Following my flight to Hono on a plane with no windows, I will be staying a 5th (and possibly last, or at least for a long while) time at the Ala Moana. Let’s hope I manage to find my room on the first try this time.

Come on, where are the escalators?

Categories: Hawaii, Misadventures, United States | 3 Comments

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