Back in Aussie

I’m back safe and sound from Papua New Guinea. I have a lot of stuff to write and I’ll try to get some of it up over the next few days. I’m in Cairns for two days before I fly to Darwin and start the drive to Perth. That is going to make going from Sydney to Cairns look like a trip around the block.

Oddly enough, I met a lot of Americans in PNG. I almost never meet Americans while traveling and I hadn’t expected to meet any in PNG of all places.

I probably had more conversations with people in PNG than I did my entire time in Australia. You don’t get the average 18-22 year old gap year European who is out to get drunk in Papua New Guinea.

El Gringo Tiene Gusto Del Caramelo (The Gringo Likes Candy)

While I’m in Papua New Guinea, I’ve asked several other travel bloggers to provide some guest posts. Today’s entry was written by Malena Stiteler who is on an eighteen-month round-the-world odyssey seeking out as much candy as she can get her hands on. I sincerely hope her travels take her to the dentist at some point along the way. You can read more about her travels at Candy From Strangers.

Mexico is known for Mayan ruins and colonial cathedrals, chillis and tortillas, sombreros and tequila. Most travelers seek out some combination of chilled cervesas and hot beaches, indigenous crafts and famous murals. No one drinks the water in an often unsuccessful attempt to avoid Montezuma’s Revenge, everyone hopes they don’t get robbed (almost no one does) and chances are not enough sunscreen is applied. While there, I hit many of Mexico’s highs and lows, but throughout I tried to include an additional dimension of cultural exploration: the national and regional candies, sweets, and dulces of Mexico.

Much like the history of Mexico itself, the candy of the region exists as a combination of modern, indigenous, and colonial influences. Sweets that have been around for thousands of years sit side by side Spanish-influenced colonial candy and modern mass-produced treats of corn syrup and artificial colors in candy stores. No era has achieved full dominance over the candy market, which means it is possible to try a veritable timeline of candies while traveling – and of course, each region of the country has their own little niche.

Pre-Columbian Candy

The first and most basic form of “candy” in Mexico is simply the fruit. Mangoes, pineapples, and coconuts have long helped the people of the region satisfy their sweet tooth. The great civilizations of the region developed additional techniques for candy creation: bars of honey, nuts and seeds were common in the Aztec areas of Mexico long before the conquistadors arrive, along with sweetened tuna treats (made of the fruit of the nopal cactus, not fish like it sounds like.) And, of course, most famously cacao was first discovered in Mexico by precursors to the Olmecs around 1800 BC, albeit in a form very different from the sweet chocolate bars that plague our teeth today. Until the arrival of Europeans, the cacao bean served two main purposes: both Mayans and Aztecs created a drink used for ceremonial purposes as a stand-in for human blood and the latter considered it a form of money, where one cacao bean could purchase a single large tomato.

Today, fruits are served on street corners all over the country for very little as a refreshing snack. Cacao is still served much as the Mayans drank it in Oaxaca, where it is possible to buy bags of freshly ground cacao beans mixed with sugar, cinnamon, or vanilla to your specifications from the prolific chocolate stores. Queso de tuna is a specialty of the Zacatecas market and women wander the squares of northern cities with baskets on their heads full of round bars made of honey, sunflower seeds, and peanuts called palenquitas, and small sweet square bars of amarynth seeds and honey called alegrias – although not without some interference from the Spanish government, who banned amarynth seeds for almost 300 years due to its history as the base for small, sweet, pagan statues that were used in Aztec rituals, including that of human sacrifices.

Colonial Candy

Once the Aztec civilization was subdued by the Spanish forces, the Catholic Church began moving missionaries in, building monasteries and convents to help civilize the indigenous population. The convents, largely staffed by Spanish nuns with European traditions were instrumental in creating many of the distinctively Mexican candy flavors of today. These colonial candies are quite varied, from the sweet caramely flavored cajeta made in Celaya of sugar and goat’s milk to Morelian ate, a delicious chewy fruit spread made of guava, apples, peaches, or pears. Perhaps the most disturbing “candy” are the cooked sweet potatoes called camotes. Devised by a student as a practical joke on a nun at the monastery in Puebla, the joke backfired when the nun ended up enjoying the roasting sugared potatoes, to the student’s surprise. The squishy, yammy sweet with undertones of chocolate, coconut, pineapple, or strawberry was not my favorite Mexican candy!

One interesting thing about the colonial candy is that while it is possible to get most of it throughout the country now, each sweet has an association with the specific convent and city that gave birth to it, making travel to that city an amazing way to learn about the candy in depth. Perhaps more interesting are the different reasons that nuns made sweets at all. The first (and most obvious) was to sell the candies for money and to provide the indigenous people of the regions a new way to harness their natural resources. The second more unlikely reason that nuns would create delicious sweets was to treat their friends and lovers – not exactly an image most people have of Catholic nuns!

Modern Candies

So, what is seen in candy stores today? The traditional stores sell most of the colonial and pre-Columbian candies, of course, but most gas stations and convenience stores stick to modern, mass-produced Mexican candy. There really isn’t a large market for candy imported from the States or from Europe, but there are numerous Mexican candies with very distinctive tastes that aren’t sold anywhere else. Mango, tamarind, watermelon, and lime are common flavors, and the use of a sweet chili powder sugar is ubiquitous and delicious. It is common to buy lollipops or hard candies with a separate packet of spicy chili powder to dip the sweet into, and if that isn’t available chances are the chili flavor is added in already. Although I feel bad for the way the mass-produced candy is starting to shut the handmade traditional candy out of the market, I have to admit that my sweet tooth extends to it as well.

So what does this all mean for a traveler to Mexico who wants to take in some of the candy of the region? What are the best destinations or candy activities? Mexico City is an obvious destination, with a wide variety of candy stores and pretty much all of the traditional candies freshly available. From here most travelers will head out to visit a few colonial cities: perfect because most of these cities have their own regional specialties. For example, Celaya is a small city famous for Cajeta and many of the stores offer free tasting and the opportunity to watch the making of cajeta in action. Morelia has a candy museum that documents the history of candy in the region, and offers free tasting, while Puebla has a street lined with candy stores and more free samples at the tourist office. (You may notice that my suggestions revolve around free samples…)

From here it is a short trip to Oaxaca where the scent of freshly ground cacao beans fills some streets. The chocolate here is quite different from American or European chocolate, as it is much more coarsely ground and sugary, but it is perfect for a traditional hot chocolate drink. Heading to the eastern coast the use of fruit such as coconut and pineapple becomes much more common, with cookies filled with a pineapple jam or sweetened coconut bars native to San Cristobal de las Casas and the Yucatan. Any one of those cities should offer a traveler an interesting taste into the Mexican culture of sweets.

Alive in PNG

I can’t believe they have internet here. It isn’t great, but I can do simple things.

So far, my PNG experience has been amazing. The Port Moresby airport is far, far from the worst airport in the world. (which I saw it was on one list).

I’m on Kimbe Bay on New Britian Island. The people here are great. The food is great. The diving is great. The other guests I’ve met are great. I did 3 dives today and got massively sunburned. Skin cancer is probably the biggest danger here. This is one of the better places I’ve stayed on my trip. So far, it has been 100% positive.

Kimbe Bay is totally ringed with small volcanoes, most of which are in some stage of activity. I guess plane flights for the few days before I arrived were canceled because of volcanic ash in the air.

The universal consensus is that Port Moresby sucks, but there is no reason to ever go there. There is nothing to see. Port Moresby is not PNG. That is like saying Iowa is dangerous because Detroit is.

PNG, Here I Come

My tickets are booked and everything is ready to go for my excursion to PNG (Papua New Guinea). Researching this trip has been very different than any of the other places I’ve researched so far.

There are parts of PNG which are for all practical purposes no different than they were 1,000 years ago. This places it in a different category from any place I’ve been to date. PNG is one of the most rural countries in the world with 85% of the population living outside of cities. Most of that 15% is in Port Moresby.

In researching what to do and where to go online, I’ve found a real dearth of information compared to what I’m used to, especially for the highland areas. There are plenty of resorts around the coastal areas, but most of the highland information I’ve found consists of “hire a guide” and the prices are really expensive. In fact, getting prices for a single night in the Port Moresby area seems more expensive than Sydney or Tokyo.

I’ve often found the best advice comes from people on the ground who have been to the places you’re going. Once you get in a region, you discover more information about a place. The universal message I’ve gotten from everyone I have spoken to, including people from PNG, is to be very very careful, especially in Port Moresby and other towns. My “travelers sense” tells me that PNG might be the most dangerous place I’ve visited so far.

The danger is mostly just street crime. I have yet to read anything about political violence or widespread violent movement beyond some inter village skirmishes. As I understand it, there are roving bands of young men who have no compulsion to prey on outsiders. The most common adjective I’ve seen for hotels in the Port Moresby area was “secure”. The advice I was given was to get to your hotel, then stay put.

It is hard to make decisions about a place before you get there. Most of the rumors and stories you hear usually aren’t true. Then again, some places just are dangerous. While I am willing to take reasonable risks, there are some risks which are just stupid. I am often asked if I plan on visiting Iraq or Afghanistan. The answer is “no, not anytime soon”. I would be happy to visit Iran, North Korea or Cuba, but would not want to visit out of control places like Somalia.

The closest thing I have to compare to PNG has been the Solomon Islands. One woman I spoke to said that Honiara was 5x safer than Port Moresby, and while I never felt in any danger in the Solomons, Honiara is a far cry from Tokyo and was the location of a lot of violence several years ago.

So we’ll see how it goes. I’m sure I’ll get comments from people who have been to PNG who will say “it’s fine” and others who will say “be careful”. I’ll err on the side of caution. My current plans are pared down a bit from my original ones, but I hope it will still be a pretty good experience.

My Day As An Underwater Photographer

Me trying very hard to hold still as I take a photo of Nemo (photo by Peter Mooney)
Me trying very hard to hold still as I take a photo of Nemo (photo by Peter Mooney)
There are lots of places in the world you can go SCUBA diving, but Cairns just might have the biggest concentration of dive shops and and the largest diving industry in the world. The size of the industry is big enough that it has dedicated businesses devoted to underwater photography. I figured this would be the best opportunity for me to really do some serious underwater photography with a real camera.

I’ve taken underwater photos while diving in the past, but it has always involved renting a simple point and shoot in a plastic enclosure for the day. It is a far cry from what professional underwater photographers do, and given I have a semi-pro camera, I wanted to use my gear to do the real thing.

I went to Scubapix in Cairns and talked to Peter Mooney. Scubapix is pretty much the best shop for Cairns underwater photography. Peter is a real photographer who has had underwater photos on the cover of several SCUBA journals and in Time Magazine. He’s the sort of guy that when film crews from the Discovery Channel come to town to shoot the Great Barrier Reef, he’s the guy they talk to.

Sea fans
Sea fans
I told Peter what I’d like to do and we planned for a day of underwater photos out on the reef. I had no idea where you would even begin doing something like this. I knew you had expensive enclosures for cameras and lots of lights, but I didn’t know much else. What ISO setting do you use? What sort of lens do you use? How much battery life does a dive eat up? How many photos can you reasonably take during a dive? I had no clue where to even begin in answering those questions, so I figured it would be best to just have Peter come with me and dive for a day.

The day before the dive I brought in my camera and got it fitted with the custom electronics and the enclosure. Pretty much all of the knobs and buttons on the camera are accessible on the outside of the enclosure via a special cable. You can zoom, change settings, review photos on the LCD, pretty much everything you could do it if you weren’t underwater.

Giant Clam
Giant Clam
These enclosures are not cheap. They are custom to the camera. Getting the setup which I used for the day would probably have run me over $4,000. The cost is due to the low demand and the work which has to go into each design. You will spend more on the enclosure and the lights than you would on the camera and the lenses, probably by quite a bit. I once looked into buying an enclosure for my camera, but the price and the idea of lugging a big thing I’d hardly ever use around didn’t make it very appealing.

The morning we left to go was like most dive trips. The boat we went out on was larger than what I’ve been used to for diving. The great barrier reef is about 40 miles away from the shore so you have to take a somewhat rough trip over open water to get out to the reef, as opposed to island diving where the reef is right off the edge of the island. There were at least a dozen people on the boat who were diving at various degrees of experience. It was the largest number of divers I’ve seen in one spot.

Peter gave me advice about what to do: move the strobe lights in the closer you get, try to be within a arms length of the subject, and try to shoot from the side or looking up and not looking down. He also brought his own camera (Nikon D2X) and didn’t use any external lighting.

Oooooh, Barracuda!
Oooooh, Barracuda!
Trying to take photos while diving, especially when you don’t know what your doing, is a real trick. You see those beautiful photos in National Geographic and don’t put a lot of thought into the process. Take for example the photo I posted yesterday of the clownfish in the anemone. You are shooting with a wide angle lens, so you have to get almost on top of the fish. The fish have no desire to cooperate with you so they are moving around. There is probably a current which is moving you around and you try to steady yourself and keep body off sharp coral, so you are probably only using one hand. If you want to get the photo right, you are probably going to have to fiddle with lights and settings on your camera while all of this is going on. Oh, and you also have a giant tank on your back and a hose in your mouth so you can’t talk.

For every beautiful underwater photo you see, there are problems a whole bunch of ones which got thrown out or didn’t make the cut. Peter told me he spent two weeks in Indonesia diving and came home with 12 usable photos. Of the ones I uploaded from my day of diving, I’d guess that none of those would probably be good enough for print. In fact, the best ones are of me, because they weren’t taken by me.

Leather Corals
Leather Corals
My first dive only lasted 30 minutes, which is really short. This is because I sucked through air faster than I ever have on a dive. I’m not sure why, but I’m guessing it was because I was so focused on the camera I wasn’t really paying attention to my breathing or anything else. We also had to swim out against the current and were down around 18m for a good amount of time. There is also the dragging the camera around factor. Still, 30 min is pretty short when you aren’t deep diving.

My next two dives went much better after I had an idea of what I was doing. One thing when you are diving is that you are often hovering over what you are looking at. This for the most part makes for bad photos, something that was really driven home after I was able to look at the photos I took.

All the photos you see on this page and all the others which I uploaded from that day were touched up with Photoshop. All of them. The biggest thing being correcting the white balance. Because I shoot in RAW this is trivial to do in Photoshop. Most of the other changes involved adjusting shadows, exposure and making adjustments to the light curves. From what I saw, I’d almost say it is necessary. There were only a few photos I probably could pass as presentable without Photoshop, one of which was the fan photo on this page. Underwater photography would be very difficult with film.

I’m glad took the time to do this. It was something that I might never be able to do again at this level, so it is a feather I can put in my travel and photography cap. If I ever find a place that rents enclosures for a Nikon D200 and if I can find a place that rents them at some affordable rate, then I might do it again. Plus, I got some great photos.

Call For Help

I’m in need of a webmaster. Badly.

I’m spending way too much time monkeying with my website and too little traveling. I really don’t need a lot of time, it is just that doing something on a laptop in an internet cafe overseas takes 2-3x as long as it would noramlly, and I have to pay for the time I spend working online.

Everything I use is standard LAMP (Linux, Apache, MySQL, PHP). I’m currently trying to get Gallery2 running to host all my images.

If this sounds like something you’d be interested in, send an email to [email protected] It shouldn’t require a lot of time and if you are interested in stuff from abroad, I’m sure we can cut a deal.

Queensland Quickie

This is gonna be quick. I’ll have a much larger post coming tomorrow.

I got to play professional underwater photographer yesterday. I’ve probably learned more about photography than I have in the last year. I got three dives in and took about 200 photos. I got to use my camera, my lens, my everything…..underwater. I have much more respect for underwater photographers now. It is not simple.

I have another day in Cairns before I’m off to PNG and I have a lot to do.

More tomorrow….

Diving While Traveling

Like bungee jumping, tattoos and photography, SCUBA diving is something I never did prior to the start of my trip. I did my first dive and got my certification in Lahania in Maui. Since then I have dove in the Cook Islands, Fiji, Micronesia, Palau and the Great Barrier Reef. Some of my dives have been the highlight of my trip and are where some of my best stories have come from. I’ve also met some of the most remarkable people on my drip while I was diving.

A lot of people who are considering taking a trip like mine read this site, so I want to take the time to go through how and why you want to learn to dive and what you might want to do prior to the start of your trip. No matter where you go, you will probably be in a tropical part of the world near the ocean where SCUBA diving will be available. If you don’t dive, then you are really missing out on seeing a big hunk of the world.

Getting Started

Diving is something I never ever would have done if it wasn’t for traveling. I spent my life in Wisconsin and Minnesota. While there are dive shops there, diving in lakes really doesn’t seem all that exciting. Most are very muddy and you can’t see anything, and save for a few months, they are quite cold. I never even saw a body of salt water until I was 21.

To be able to dive in most places, you need to be certified. While there are more than one certification organization, odds are you will be taking a PADI (Professional Association of Dive Instructors) certification course. They are by far the largest dive organization in the world and pretty much every single dive shop I’ve seen uses the PADI courses.

PADI offers different levels of certification. The certification you want to get is the PADI Open Water Diver. If you see things like “Discover Scuba Diving” or “Scuba Diver” they are not what you want. They are basically just a tightly controlled introduction where you can put on some gear and go into the water. You might want to do that, but there is no certification card you can get at the end to take to other dive centers and you wont earn points you can use on your real certification course.

The Open Water course consists of three parts. 1) The book/classroom section. 2) the “pool” section, and 3) the diving section. The big question you have to figure out is if you should get certified before or after you leave on your trip. There are pros and cons to each.

Before or After

The biggest advantage to getting certified before your trip is that you don’t have to waste time getting certified once you are on the road. The Open Water course usually lasts about three days. Those are three days you could be diving. The classroom and the pool part of the course can be done almost anywhere at anytime. Even in Minnesota in the middle of winter, it was possible do those parts of the course. A lot of people when they are in the planning stage of a trip like to think they are doing something, and getting certified is certainly more active than packing a bag.

The downside to doing this are possibly two fold: 1) it might be more expensive. This depends on where you will be traveling to. If you are going to Thailand or the Philippines, it is almost certainly less expensive than getting certified in North America or Europe. 2) If you live in a land locked or cold area, you probably can’t complete the final dives unless you do it in the summer.

I did some research in Minnesota about getting certified. They did the final dives either in a quarry in Northern Minnesota during the summer, or they took a trip to Mexico or the Caribbean to do the final dives.

If doing the final dives aren’t an option where you live, you can do parts 1 and 2 locally, then get a signed piece of paper to take to the dive instructor where you are traveling to, to do the final two dives. This way you are at least diving when you get there and don’t have to waste time in the classroom.

You can’t really fail the written part of the certification. If you get something wrong, you just have to go over that again with the instructor and sign something saying you now understand it. There is some basic science involved regarding pressure (Boyle’s Law) and some basic math.

Cost and Equipment

Certification isn’t cheap and price can vary a lot depending on where you are getting certified. The lowest I’ve seen was in Fiji and that was around $200 USD. I’ve also seen prices near $500 USD in Australia.

The big hidden cost in any PADI certification are the books. It is sort of scam to be honest. They make you buy the books for a highly inflated price. Expect to pay at least $40 for a book. Some places might just have a book you can check out and make photocopies of the test. Technically, I don’t know if that is legit by PADI, but it does happen.

Depending on your finances, you might want to take a more expensive course at home now while you are working, rather than a cheaper one on the road when you are on a budget.

Once you are certified, you are good for life. You are supposed to take a refresher course if you haven’t dived in a long time, but that is usually just another PADI money maker and a “cover your ass” policy.

What Do You Do

The certification goes over things like dive tables, learning about decompression, how long you have to be on the surface between dives, how deep you can go, etc. It also covers things like safety and practicing things which you will hopefully never have to do when you are out diving: removing your gear, taking your mask off, sharing your regulator, etc.

Most of the things you go over are never used in normal, recreational diving when you dive through professional dive shops. They calculate surface times for you, so you don’t worry about it. You usually never go beyond 20m in depth because most of the interesting things are closer to the light at shallower depths.

If you are like me, you probably never gave much thought to SCUBA diving before. You breathe air out of a tank….the end. However, there is a lot more to it, and you at least need an intuitive understanding of how gases work under pressure.
Some of the things are not intuitive until you think about it (the deeper you go, the less buoyant you become because the air in your vest become compressed). When I took the course, I also realized that the breakthrough behind the SCUBA tank wasn’t the tank, it was the regulator which lets you breathe air at the same pressure as the ambient water pressure.

After You Are Certified

Once you are certified, you can take your card anywhere and go diving. The most common sort of dive is a two tank dive. You get in a boat and go out to where you are going to dive in the morning. You dive for 45-60min, come back up and have lunch and sit around. I’ve been on some dives where we went to an island for lunch. After 1-2 hours on the surface, you go and have a second dive in the afternoon and go home.

A 2 tank dive will usually run you $75-120 USD. That will take up a good chunk of your day. You’ll probably be diving with a few more people and your dive master. You are almost always better off doing a 2 or 3 tank dive. Much of the cost is hiring the dive master and boat for the day. Getting in another dive while you are already out there is pretty cheap.

You don’t need to carry any gear with you. If you want you can pack your own goggles/snorkel/fins, but all of those can be provided by a dive shop. Packing all that gear is usually just too heavy unless you are a super serious diver. It is also really expensive. I think you’d have to do hundreds of dives to recoup the cost of buying your own gear.

Some dive shops will throw in the gear as part of the cost. Others will charge extra. Find out before hand. The gear you use will be: mask, fins, wet suit, BCD (buoyancy control device, aka your vest that holds your tank), regulator and tank.

The length of a dive will depend on how deep you go and how quickly you use up air. The deeper you go, the quicker you will use air. The average length of my dives has been 40-50 minutes. As a general rule, women go through air slower than men. The less relaxed you are, the quicker you go through air.


You owe it to yourself to dive if you are going to visit places like the Red Sea, Fiji, Queensland, or the Bahamas. Some people are uneasy about diving, but they should at least give it a try and maybe take one of the into sessions where they can do it in a pool. Honestly, so long as you don’t go in caves or something, diving is really safe. Floating is a bigger problem than sinking.

Take the time and research getting certified before you leave on your trip. You’ll be glad you did.