Phuket and its surrounds

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The slow boat to Phi Phi – a good 48 kilometres away from Phuket’s Chalong Bay – was close to the equivalent of a slow ride to hell. Nothing to do with the weather really, but I slowly went out of my mind trying to find things to do on the boat, other than pace the narrow corridors like a convict. Denis was the only other recognisable person on the boat; the others came from yet another dive company and we soon found ourselves talking to Katie of San Diego, another lone diver who seemed content to sit in a corner of the slow boat to hell.

Denis spoke fondly of months where there wasn’t a single drop of rain. I was horrified.

Thankfully, he went on to talk about his past as a Mountie, his gym training, his para-motoring hobby and the sheer number of eggs he consumes a day. Katie on the other hand, spoke repetitively about her job, the wonders of California and her trepidation of diving.

I tried not to make inappropriate remarks.

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At Phi Phi and Shark point, the dives were good though not as spectacular as I’d hoped they would be with rather poor visibility and moderate currents, but then again I’d never had schools of fish swimming around me before. That mild euphoria evaporated when I returned to the mainland late and was reminded immediately just how expensive things are over here when I paid an exorbitant amount for my laundry load – which I suspected was weighed using a scale tipped in the shop’s favour.

Why am I bloody not surprised?

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If there’s anything I’m going to remember of Phuket, it would unfortunately be the relentless heat and humidity, the never-ending touts and the costs I’ve racked up in the past few days, even in a quieter place like Karon. I’ve spent an extortionate amount on transportation, an unwelcome hotel deposit fee, underwater photos and driver tips that have come up to a staggering amount.

The only place of relative normalcy is Phuket (Old) Town, which has a surprisingly eclectic vibe of the old and the modern with the sheer number of cafes stubborn holding their own in the presence of traditional shops. But I’d only wandered those charming streets for 40 minutes, having been given a strict curfew by the driver who was adamant about my punctuality like an army sergeant.

And then it was back again to Karon, with the sounds of ‘taxi, hello taxi?’ dogging my every step.

Mass Dive

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“I love pink,” Andy declares as he parades around the boat in a bright pink towel, then drops it conveniently in front of most of the people in the boat waiting to take their turn at the step-off platform as he points to Denis, my Nitrox instructor for the day. A mild-mannered French Canadian, Denis is built like a wrestler and strangely apologetic for the coarse things that slip out sometimes.

But he is overshadowed by Andy (most people are anyway), who struts around like a peacock with an extra long tail. Yobbish, full of showmanship and bravado, bluntly hilarious and attention deficit, Andy—the owner of Andy Scuba Diving—makes himself the life of the party. In fact, he’s 50 shades of pink: the towel, his mobile, diving socks, laptop cover and bag are proud advertisements for breast awareness day, a cause he’s obliviously championing. A lot of it is faux affection; the rest of it is what I suspect, wish-fulfilment.

“Because real men love pink. And stop perving me.”

Denis shakes his head in denial and points at me instead. I nod and point at myself and Andy brightens immediately, moving to throw his arm around me. Thereafter, I’m referred to as his ‘little beauty’ or ‘the beautiful one’, probably used when he’s forgotten my name. Throughout the day, I’m regaled with tales of his broken camera casing, a 16km marathon he’s going to undertake with his wife, ‘Scubaman’ the new superhero (done by puffing up his scuba suit) and his pride of having freed a manta ray from a fishing net.

The first day of scuba to Racha Noi and Yai is a tiring and bewildering (but fun) one, filled with yobbish, male ‘jokes’ about cock rings, flirtatious come-ons and lots of touches (all voluntarily given by Andy and Denis). I told them I liked big things, innocently in reference to sea creatures, which they all promptly misconstrued with many winks and grins. The dives themselves aren’t as stressful as I thought they’d be, burdened with course expectations and theory. Denis was encouraging and quick to praise which I naturally found suspicious because of my own paranoid nature. Yet the boat, packed with several dive groups from different dive companies, was a little too crowded for my liking, an experience which I hope, wouldn’t be repeated on Wednesday’s dive to Phi Phi.

Andy ended the trip by kissing my hand almost reverently. I laughed at that extravagant display and told him what he wanted to hear—that I had a brilliant day.

Facing fears

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On a recent abseiling course, there was a moment of awkwardness when we were all asked to introduce ourselves and why we wanted to learn how to abseil. When it came to my turn, I couldn’t even plead insanity, only that I was interested in adventure and that I was tentatively taking baby steps to wade into doing things that I’d only recently begun to crave.

Then people started talking, and it amazed me how many of them actually signed up to abseil to conquer their fear of heights. In essence, it was to do the very thing they were afraid of, in a controlled environment where there was a smaller chance of screwing up. And then I realised I was, in effect, doing the same thing, if not for abseiling, at least for the impulsively-planned scuba dive trip to Thailand at the end of next month.

I hadn’t forgotten the first instance of utter panic that overwhelmed me when the water enveloped my head during a Bali dive trip in the last quarter of last year. Momentary loss of self-control, coupled with a fear of sinking and drowning even with the regulator bitten down hard between my teeth–they’re all nasty feelings I’d rather not experience again, except I think I must, just so that this particular demon gets exorcised by its very own watery sword.

In the meantime, I’ve surreptitiously googled ‘panic attacks’ a few times as soon as I’d confirmed my flights and hotel, even though cerebral knowledge helps little when push comes to shove under water. This time, I’ve signed up to do the Nitrox course and pray that I’ll get a patient, hand-holding instructor.

Copenhagen – Redux

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The flight from Ilulissat to Copenhagen was a long, long one and getting back to the capital was like greeting an old friend again after a week away. I said goodbye to the rest of the tour group and was only a teeny little bit sad to do so, having learnt how to say goodbye (mostly permanently) over the last 2 decades.

There was no plan TC and I had in Copenhagen apart from walking around aimlessly, eating the spectacularly New Nordic food, going cold meat shopping and getting used to the different time zone again.

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Thanks to what TC had seen in an episode in the Amazing race, stumbled our way to Ida Davidsen for smørrebrød to see a slew of plates (the daily specials) in a glass case. Because there wasn’t anyway we could have deciphered the 250 over types of smørrebrød on her menu, an old lady manning the counter painstakingly explained what the daily specials consisted of and we happily told her our orders (smoked eel, beef and prawns on bread) only to realise just how delicious but exorbitant that whole bloody meal was.

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Dinner was at Ma’ed, an Ethiopian cafe in Nørrebro that had injera (a spongy, hole-y, sourdough flatbread) on which meat, lentils and yoghurt are piled on top. TC loved it immediately and being the difficult one, I disagreed.

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When it comes to food, I stand corrected: Copenhagen is pretty life-changing. I’ve repented of my insular, reluctant inner foodie after tasting eel that doesn’t reek of brine and cucumber that can be made into a powder.

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My last night in Copenhagen was spent in Restaurant Radio, an informal, small place opened by Claus Meyer (of the Noma fame) and two other chefs near the Forum Metro station emphasising fresh, organic ingredients and innovative gastronomy. The menu on its website is seasonal and deliberately vague (and possibly too fashionable for my tastes), listing only the ingredients on each course (for instance, celeriac, cod, grain) without revealing anything about its preparation or its provenance. Which is probably why I harassed the poor servers to no end about the makeup of each particular dish.

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The meal was far from disappointing though; in fact, I was awed by each course that went something like this:

Starter: Bread with Butter mixed with caramelised onion, crackers with mushroom cream.

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Course 1: Potato cream and chips turned over in vinegar, lightly roasted Danish squid and roasted olive crunch.

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Course 2: Seared cod, dill, celeriac and cream in lumpfish roe.

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Course 3: Fried savoy cabbage, kale, apple sauce, apple strips and pistachio.

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Course 4: Roasted pork breast, salsify, pickled onions.

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Dessert: Carrot sorbet on dehydrated carrots glazed with caramel, white chocolate crunch and pearl barley.

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Thanks for the beautifully sunny day and for memories again, Copenhagen. See you sometime soon.

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Miles ahead

Miles is the sprightliest 79 year-old Brit I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. He behaves decades younger than he really is, walks around with a bounce in his step and does everything that everyone under the age of 30 can do without much difficulty, toughing it out when it’s needed. The crisp London accent is still so very evident after living in New York for 36 years and talking to him is a little like talking to Michael Palin with a wicked, sharper edge (or on steroids) which can often serve as a highlight for the day – a hilarious instance being his incredulous reaction to a group of Asian tourists dressed in cold-weather jumpsuits which he termed ‘spacesuits’ and promptly called them ‘astronauts bouncing around town’.

He was predictably the first to arrive at 8.45 am for the dog sledge activity and was extremely happy to find out that there would be an Inuit driver for the sledge he was going to be on.

“Oh, of course there will be a driver,” said the customer service representative with exaggerated patience after his show of relief.

“That’s good then. I thought we’d have to drive the sleds ourselves, thinking I might turn the sled over or something! Now I can just sit behind and look…imperious,” Miles proclaimed with satisfaction.

We decked ourselves in seal skin and looking like Michelin men, went south of town where the dogs were kept. Our driver came roaring in with his pack of Greenlandic hounds and off we went, half-slouching in the sled with legs extended, flying straight onto the frigid, snow-decked plains carried only by the power of furry little paws. Halfway through, a sled with overly-excited dogs got lost halfway when the dogs decided to take a merry ride of their own, stranding the poor tourist who had to share the remaining seat with 2 other persons.

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Miles was effusively excited even though it as obvious he was freezing in the air, having only rented the snow shoes but not the seal skin clothing and got concerned with the welfare of the dogs when he thought they could be treated a lot better than they currently were.

We laughed and said goodbye as he wandered off to buy trinkets for his grandchildren. We took a last turn around town, heaped praise on the pretty sights and worried about the kind of trinkets we needed to bring back.

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I bumped into Miles again at dinner and learned that his only entertainment for the rest of the night was “Ex on the beach”, a show on MTV so abysmally awful (‘incredibly bad’ in his words) that it was fascinating.

I think I’m going to miss him a lot when we finally say goodbye.

Ilulissat’s lure

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The ancient settlement site of Sermermiut, where the Saqqaq, Early Dorset and Thule cultures lived and fished for seal and halibut in the nutrient-rich waters of the glacier is an easy kilometre south of Ilulissat, where a boardwalk cuts through its grassy slopes straight down to the waters of Ilulissat Kangerlua (Jakobshavn Icefjord). The last resident moved to Ilulissat in 1850, abandoning the site entirely. Today, it’s a UNESCO heritage site, complete with a warning not to stand too close to the shore in case a chunk of ice breaks off into the sea resulting in a tidal wave that I’m sure, has killed people before.

We visited Sermermiut in a morning blizzard that unrepentantly threw snow into our faces, just as the sun was only starting to burn off the mist. Idyllic it wasn’t (in fact, it was brutally painful), but I was nonetheless awed by the idea that I was treading ground where the ancient settlers must have walked. There were icebergs in the distance and also a view of the suicide cliff, where those who tired of their burdens (or those who needed a human sacrifice) hurled themselves off the edge into the icy waters below.

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We had better look at the suicide cliff during the afternoon’s sailing among the icebergs tour; it was bitterly cold but pockets of weak sunshine gave the ‘bergs a strangely beautiful bluish-yellow tint, like a very ill man stricken with an ailment.

They are beyond beautiful, but right now, as I write this, I still have no words.

Moody and Bright, so goes the mood

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“Let me tell you a little about myself,” said the guide from World of Greenland (a partner of Greenland Travel) at the very start of the cultural/historical walk around the town. “I first visited Greenland in 2007, fell in love with the country and came back again in 2008. This time, I fell in love with the dog-sled guide and moved here permanently. So you can ask me anything you want about Ilulissat.”

That was probably the only snippet that was memorable; the rest was simply trivia that floated in a ear and exited the other. We walked mostly to the harbour, heard about when the ships came in, endured the smell of raw seafood and stood outside the Knud Rasmussen Museum in the freezing wind.

“She’s just telling us all the useless things I don’t care to know,” said a Brit to me.

I laughed and commiserated wholeheartedly, having felt the same way. These are after all, the essentials: walking to town takes 20 minutes; the bus runs every forty minutes and the shop close on Sunday.

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The painfully pointless walking tour simply confirmed that Ilulissat is the darling of West Greenland, despite the facilities that are barely coping with the influx of tourists that pour in during winter. Icebergs float serenely off the shores of the town and views go from spectacular to staggering, especially when the sun finally comes out. The number of tours offered by a variety of travel companies can be overwhelming and expensive, and the tourist dollar is fully (and possibly justifiably) milked to the core here.

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I still don’t remember anything more the guide said, except that they do offer tours apart from what’s in the excursion package. Cheered by this news, TC and I wiggled our way next door to Ice Cap tours (a competitor) and promptly signed up for ice-climbing, an activity that promised to be suitable even for beginners. The reality is less rosy, as always. Sergei the Catalonian ice-climbing instructor told us it was quite an involved process and after trudging through the frozen harbour on snow-shoes, taught us to aim high and hit hard with the ultra-modern-looking pick-axe which I failed miserably at. I finished the session having managed only a miserable 5 metres from the ground with all limbs feeling like jello, aching in places I never thought muscles even existed.

We went back sweaty and discovered that Hotel Arctic’s washing charges are only 50DKK if you fill up their laundry bag. This was by far, the cheapest load of laundry we’ve ever done…in Scandinavia and I celebrated by doing a little dance in the room much to TC’s bemusement.

Then came dinner.

Food is interesting but limited and pizza and burgers seem to be reigning catch of the day. There are only 2 cafes available to those who visit in winter and a huge number of shops (Knut P, Pilu Sports, Butik Sara) selling a surprising number of hardcore winter outdoor wear with brands I’ve never even heard of at prices that were way more reasonable than Stockholm or even Copenhagen.

But then, what do I really know about arctic travel and its paraphernalia?